Vaccine apartheid: How the global south is fighting back
Fatima Hassan, founder of South Africa’s Health Justice Initiative and a leading campaigner for a people’s vaccine, talks to Global Justice Now’s Nick Dearden.
Nick: We’ve been campaigning for a TRIPS waiver [an intellectual property waiver on Covid-19 vaccines and treatments] at the World Trade Organization for about 18 months now. I think the case for this has just become more and more clear – the inequality just gets worse and we must share these recipes so countries can start producing what they need. But we haven’t won yet, and it seems the UK and EU aren’t close to changing their minds. Do you still have hope?
Fatima: I think first off you’ve got to remember this is part of a much longer campaign, and while the situation certainly makes me angry, we’re well ahead of where we were in the HIV/Aids crisis of the late ‘90s, early 2000s. In that crisis, although our struggle against Big Pharma was well publicised, we never managed to get so many people questioning the whole model. We didn’t have so many governments, so many ordinary people, right around the world, fundamentally questioning intellectual property on essential medicines.
We never managed to critique how these drugs are made in the first place – that most of the time they aren’t really the creation of Big Pharma themselves. We never got such a widespread acceptance that Big Pharma CEOs shouldn’t be in the position of deciding who gets these medicines and at what price.
In fact, we didn’t even get HIV medication flowing to countries like mine for seven or eight years, in spite of hundreds of people dying every day. So things are moving much faster now, and bigger change is possible as a result.
Nick: What sort of change? Are you looking beyond a TRIPS waiver now?
Fatima: I think the TRIPS waiver is such a reasonable demand, a very moderate thing to ask for. The failure of Big Pharma or some of the richest governments, like the UK, to even contemplate it has really highlighted how extreme these WTO rules are.
And it’s made governments across Africa wake up to the inflexibility of this system, and to recognise that if we’re to deal with Covid, not to mention many other health issues, this model simply won’t do.
This has prompted one of the most exciting developments I think: the World Health Organization’s mRNA hubs. The first one has been established right here in South Africa.
Nick: So this is where scientists are trying to recreate Moderna’s vaccine – or the US government’s vaccine which is being produced by Moderna I should say – and to get their heads around how this revolutionary technology works?
Fatima: Yes, and not only so they can produce vaccines here in South Africa. The idea is they can share this know-how with governments and factories around the world. And given mRNA is vital not just to Covid, but to other diseases like malaria and TB, this is huge news.
Moderna has said it won’t enforce its intellectual property, but it also won’t share its recipe. Even though it’s been paid for with public money and Moderna’s already made billions of dollars.
It’s worse than that actually. Moderna registered its patents in South Africa, unlike in most other countries, just as the hub was becoming a reality. So I’m not sure I believe their word on not enforcing patents. I think they actually believed their own rhetoric, that this technology is just too complicated for Africans to manage, so if we don’t help them, we can just watch them fail.
Well they’re in for a shock, because in just six months we think they might have cracked it. And that will really worry Big Pharma, and I imagine they will be thinking through everything they can to undermine this hub’s potential. The positive thing is Africa can turn round and say, “to hell with you, we did this ourselves”. The implications for the future of our drug research is quite profound, and certainly there will be many battles ahead. But I think none of this would have happened without the international campaign for a TRIPS waiver.
Nick: What are your hopes for the coming year?
Fatima: There are two things to watch for. First the US government’s action on Moderna. They’re really fed up with this company which took all this public research and showed no interest at all in sharing the medicine with the majority of the world. If Biden really takes them on, and he might, this is a game-changer. Governments have seen themselves as subservient to this industry up till now.
The second thing is that I think the WTO has proved, not simply to activists, but to southern governments, that it’s completely failed us. The WTO has done nothing at all to help deal with the problems of this pandemic. So what’s the point of it? It’s utterly discredited. And there’s real nervousness among the rich countries, quite rightly, that a campaign for major change is now growing and it will continue to build. None of this would have happened without our movement.
Fatima Hassan is a human rights lawyer and social justice activist and founder of the Health Justice Initiative. Nick Dearden is director of Global Justice Now.
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This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of Ninety-Nine, the magazine for Global Justice Now members.
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Photo: Cape Town-based Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines is gearing up to make Africa’s first home grown mRNA vaccine against Covid-19, backed by the WHO. Credit: Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg via Getty Images