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“Vaccine nationalism” widens the North-South rift

“Vaccine nationalism” is what denotes governments’–right or center–of developed countries in their dispute to guarantee the supply of the vaccine against Covid-19 to their respective populations. It is really the “every man for himself” idea of fools, for as António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, has stated, “Covid-19 anywhere means Covid-19 everywhere.”

This quest to ensure one’s own well-being while poor nations are left to fend for themselves ignores the basic aspect of the emerging mutations that make the virus more resistant. Therefore, to minimize risks, the virus must be contained globally.

However, since the World Trade Organization (WTO) declared the pandemic situation on March 11, 2020, the only thing that has been globalized has been the lack of coordination–deliberately–to continue enriching the richest, the large multinational companies and particularly the pharmaceutical companies. This is all despite the fact that Guterres affirms that “vaccination for all is the fastest way to reopen the global economy.”

In recent months, governments of leading countries in the global South such as India and South Africa have asked the WTO to temporarily suspend patents linked to the coronavirus. This is so that drugs can be distributed more democratically and so that vaccines can become an asset of humanity.

But the European Union agreed with the governments of the United States and Great Britain to oppose the request, arguing that it would discourage investment and innovation. The defense of the pharmaceutical industry has been a historical strategy of developed countries and in this case there was no exception.

Big Pharma Piracy

The pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and AstraZeneca–providers of the vaccine–have not returned the favor. The announced delay and reduction of vaccine deliveries did not please the European governments, which have supported them with multi-million dollar advances and commitments to purchase more than 1.3 billion doses.

The pharmaceutical companies not only aspired to prioritize the order of arrival to countries ignoring the signed contracts, but the competition for vaccines extended to prices. Some publications state that there are countries in the European Union that pay between 14 and 18 dollars for each dose, the United States pays 19 dollars while Israel, which is among the leaders in vaccination, pays up to 62 dollars.

Media reports state that Pfizer expects to make a turnover of 12,000 million Euros with the Covid-19 vaccine in 2021 alone. And if one takes into account that the pharmaceutical companies will keep the exclusive rights for 10 or 20 years, depending on the case, the profits are unimaginable.

Vaccine supplies in general and particularly to the European Union are far below the commitments agreed upon in the contracts. And in this framework, European leaders such as the president of the European Commission–Ursula von der Leyen– and its vice-president–Josep Borrell–have stated that it needs to maintain transparency on the destination of vaccines.

And what about Latin America?

If opacity is a problem for the citizens of the European Union, the pharmaceutical companies’ demand for confidentiality in agreements with Latin American governments is alarming. The objective is to keep silent about the companies’ absurd and abusive demands with developing countries. But despite the secrecy, the conditions leaked to the press or diplomatically slipped by high-level government officials have revealed some pearls.

In Argentina, Pfizer would have demanded as a guarantee “a new law with non-seizable assets that included glaciers and fishing permits,” according to an advisor to Axel Kicillof, the governor of the province of Buenos Aires. The inclusion of glaciers is not supposed to be out of activism against climate change, but because water has begun to be traded on Wall Street.

The Peruvian Foreign Minister could not give details of the contract “because of the confidentiality clause” but admitted in an interview that on November 23 the Peruvian government received the draft contract from Pfizer. However, it could not be signed on the scheduled date due to its content.

The Uruguayan president, Luis Lacalle Pou, declared to the press that the information on the contracts with the pharmaceutical companies would not be released to the public. He justified his statement by saying that “it was necessary to choose between having a confidentiality contract or not having vaccines.”

In turn, the Brazilian Minister of Health said that the “unfair and abusive clauses established by the Pfizer laboratory create a barrier to negotiation and purchase.” Meanwhile, in Colombia, several trade union and civil society organizations have been denouncing the refusal of Iván Duque’s government to provide information on the contracts.

These examples describe the pressures imposed by pharmaceutical giants on the weakened governments of developing countries. And there is no reason to believe that similar demands have not spread to other countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, to the detriment of the global South. This behavior of big business as if the world were its “backyard” is precisely due to the lack of clear international rules to curb its greed.

In the face of such outrages, the UN Secretary General stated that the world needs strong multilateralism. The imposition of confidentiality in contracts not only favors the lion’s share of the laboratories’ appetites, but is also an opportunity for some corrupt governments to use it as a cover to continue committing crimes.

The fragility of the planet in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, job losses, increased poverty and climate change were some of the issues mentioned by Guterres in his speech to the World Economic Forum. He also referred to the possibility of a major geopolitical fracture in the sectors led by the two powers (China and the United States), with two different currencies, and hinted at a widening North-South gap.

In a way, Guterres painted a picture that in many respects resembles that of 70 years ago. The great achievement of neoliberalism was to take the world back to the moment immediately after the Second World War, with a much weakened multilateralism and in which the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals do not seem to be part of the international agenda.

*Translation from Spanish by Marika Olijar

Photo by Presidency of Peru on / CC BY-NC-SA


Assistant General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, based in Brussels. Former General Secretary of the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas.


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