Q&A - It is time for #VaccineEquality! Join The Left’s campaign for global access to Covid-19 vaccines
Haven’t pharmaceutical companies done a great job? What more do you want? What is #VaccineEquality? Why a campaign now? What do you want to achieve with this campaign? Find the answers to all these questions in our Q&A.
ON THE CAMPAIGN
1.1 What is #VaccineEquality?
#VaccineEquality is a campaign led by The Left in the European Parliament calling for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments to be treated as global common goods accessible to everyone, everywhere. This campaign is a rallying call for civil society and citizens across Europe demanding equality and solidarity in the European response to the Covid19 pandemic. #VaccineEquality is therefore calling to put a stop to Big Pharma’s greed, ensuring that everybody within and beyond Europe can have safe access to quality vaccines. This entails:
- The sharing and transfer of knowledge and technology to develop and produce vaccines, temporarily suspending Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).
- Transparency on the deals made with pharmaceutical companies, sharing clinical data, disclosing the full contracts and all their implications for member states and public health.
- Ensure equal access to vaccines for everyone, everywhere. The EU Commission has repeatedly emphasised that “No one is safe until everyone is safe”, this means ensuring equal access to vaccines within and beyond Europe.
1.2 Why a campaign now?
We are living extraordinary times which require extraordinary measures. Since the outbreak of the pandemic we have witnessed countries enter into competition to acquire vaccines, revealing once again the crude nature of capitalism and market based solutions. The race for a vaccine is about human life and ensuring the right to health of millions of men and women around the world. Billions of euros of public money has been pumped into pharmaceutical companies for Research and Development. It is only fair then that the vaccine becomes a global common good, freely accessible to everyone. At the moment, we are experiencing a shortage of vaccines, but only 43% of global production capacities are being used. The time has come to boost production capacities and ensure that all manufacturers with capacities to produce vaccines are able to do so. This entails temporarily suspending Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and sharing knowledge and clinical data. While this was something unthinkable some time ago – as illustrated with the AIDS crisis in the early 2000s – the tide is now changing with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen saying that “All options are on the table”. Similarly, the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, said that suspending IPR should not be a taboo. Over 100 countries across the world are calling for a suspension of IPR, with only a minority – including the EU – opposing it. We need to ramp up the pressure to make sure that everyone has access to vaccines everywhere. It is time for #VaccineEquality.
1.3 Why a campaign from The Left?
The Left in the European Parliament has been at the forefront of the fight for a socially equitable and sustainable Europe based on international solidarity. The crisis we are suffering today is the result of years of austerity and neo-liberal restructuring of our public health systems which has left us completely unprepared for a pandemic. In this context, vaccine access risks replicating the structural inequalities that plague our economic and social system, with the European Commission placing the interests of Big Pharma above the health of millions of people throughout Europe and beyond. The fight for accessible vaccines for all, procured with transparency and accountability, is the battle of our time and will shape the future of health and healthcare in Europe for years to come.
1.4 What do you want to achieve with this campaign?
#VaccineEquality has three simple yet ambitious objectives:
- Transparency and accountability on deals made with Big Pharma → There is a complete lack of transparency surrounding the procurement, production and distribution of vaccines in Europe and beyond. The Commission refused to make available to the public the Advanced Purchase Agreements signed with the companies that are distributing the vaccines, notably Pfizer and AstraZeneca, that contain key information such as pricing and liability clauses. We need to ramp up the pressure on the Commission to make the purchase agreements public, detailing and clarifying the price paid for the vaccine, how it is distributed, what are the liabilities and dispute settlement procedures.
- Accessibility to vaccines across and beyond Europe → Several companies are backtracking on their commitments to deliver the vaccine in Europe pointing to issues in their production capacities. At the same time, more than half of the promised doses have been bought by the richest countries in the world leaving once again the global South in dire need. Despite the WHO slogan, repeated several times by the Commission, “no one is safe until everyone is safe”, the vaccine strategy of the Commission and the behaviour of some EU countries does not show much solidarity. Vaccine access follows the stark and unfair inequalities of the pre-Covid world: from thousands of Palestinians not receiving vaccinations, to the crippling state of public healthcare as a result of decades of austerity, privatisation and neoliberalism. While Pfizer’s revenue for the third quarter of 2020 is a whopping 12.1 billion USD, access to life saving vaccines is patchy and most worryingly responds exclusively to market logic. With the #VaccineEquality campaign, we will be putting pressure on European and national institutions to ensure that everybody, regardless of their country of origin, has safe access to vaccines.
- Patents and profits → The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the extent to which pharmaceutical companies limit access to lifesaving medicines profiting from the public health crisis while benefiting from billions of euros in public subsidies without having to forgo intellectual property rights. In the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, lawmakers and activists urged the members of WTO to use the Trade-Related Aspects of the Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver to gain access to potential vaccines and drugs against the new coronavirus for everybody. This proposal has been formalised by India and South Africa and is now supported by over 100 countries calling the WTO and TRIPS council to temporarily suspend IPR. The waiver would facilitate technology transfers so that Covid-19 medical products, including vaccines, could be produced quickly and affordably by manufacturers around the world. However, high-income countries have opposed it. This group includes the EU, which insists that International Patents remain crucial for research and development. #VaccineEquality brings together thousands of people and civil society groups across the world calling for a temporary suspension of IPR.
ON THE LEFT
2.1 What is The Left doing to make accessible vaccines a global common good?
The Left in the European Parliament has been at the forefront of the battle for a vaccine as a global common good since the EU Commission entered into negotiations with pharmaceutical companies. Our MEPs have been leading the fight for transparency, putting pressure on the European Commission at every occasion and they are working in all the parliamentary committees to ensure that vaccines are treated as a global common good. It is thanks to their work and public pressure that some of the Advanced Purchased Agreements (APA), signed between the European Commission and the pharmaceutical companies, are now available on the Commission’s website. Unfortunately, they are still heavily redacted and it is not possible yet to read all the specificities of the deals. The small, yet essential, victories of recent months show that this could change soon. At the beginning of the pandemic, Left MEPs were among the very few voices calling for a suspension of IPR and demanding transparency and accountability from the European Commission. Now, the Greens are officially supporting the ECI, and the call for a vaccine as a global common good reached a broader consensus in the EU Parliament, with different political forces supporting an amendment from The Left calling on the Commission to treat the covid vaccines as a global common good. The Left has been the first group in the European Parliament to ask for a Committee of Inquiry on the EU Vaccine strategy. While these are initial steps, the European Commission had to respond to the questions and scrutiny emerging from The Left, ultimately enhancing public accountability of the EU over its vaccination strategy.
3.1 Why call for a TRIPS waiver, when the TRIPS agreement already foresees flexibilities such as compulsory licensing?
Compulsory licensing is indeed a flexibility of the TRIPS Agreement, however there are a number of obstacles to using compulsory licensing for the production of Covid-19 vaccines. First and foremost there is a history of higher-income countries threatening lower-income countries with WTO disputes when they attempt to claim an exception. Most importantly however, while compulsory licensing allows for the production and marketing of generic versions, it also ensures the patent holder receives royalties from the government, and limits the trade and export of the goods produced. Lastly, it takes time to issue individual compulsory licensing (which might then be contested by the technology owner). Time we do not have at the moment. Temporarily suspending IPR on the other hand, would allow for manufacturing companies to deploy their capacities to produce the needed vaccines both in Europe and in the rest of the world.
3.2 Aren’t pharmaceutical companies already boosting production in Europe? What more do you want?
The European Union has pumped millions of euros of public money into the coffers of big pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccine, which in turn is once again being sold to the EU – and the rest of the world – at a profit. We are therefore, in effect, paying for the vaccine twice. While some companies are engaging in voluntary licensing agreements in Europe and third countries, what we are witnessing today is an artificial scarcity of vaccines and skyrocketing profits for Big Pharma. The world needs around 11 billion doses of coronavirus vaccine to immunize 70% of the world’s population, assuming two doses per person. As of last month, orders had been confirmed for 8.6 billion doses, a remarkable achievement. But some 6 billion of these will go to high- and upper-middle-income countries. Poorer nations — which account for 80% of the world’s population — so far have access to less than one-third of the available vaccines.
What we are calling for is equality, #VaccineEquality and justice. By temporarily suspending IPR we would allow all manufacturers and producers across the world to scale up production and ensure there are enough vaccines for everybody everywhere.
3.4 Haven’t pharmaceutical companies done a great job? What more do you want?
What we have witnessed in these past months has been incredible. With public investment and political will, we have been able to develop a vaccine in 10 months. This is a groundbreaking record for science. However this will be of no use if we don’t put human lives before profit. Health is a right and not a commodity to be sold and traded by corporations, and it needs to be treated as such.