Combating the Virus of Vaccine Nationalism

This year’s Skoll World Forum focused on the theme of “Closing the Distance” — examining local and global divides and ways in which we can all work together to build bridges to close the distance between the world’s toughest challenges and the groundbreaking solutions that aim to build a better future for all.

As part of the virtual conference, I-MAK Co-founder Tahir Amin moderated the panel “Using the COVID Crisis to Build a More Just Medicine System.” He was joined by Fatima Hassan, Founder of the Health Justice Initiative; and Leena Menghaney, Global IP Advisor at Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

It was a thoughtful, somber, and unflinching conversation on the lack of equitable vaccine access at the hands of the free market. You can watch the full panel here, and we’ve summarized some key takeaways as well:

  • We are in a state of “vaccine apartheid” in which wealthy countries are hoarding both the knowledge and supply of COVID-19 vaccines. This was illustrated by the request of attendees to state whether they’d had either a partial or full round of vaccines, as well as their location. Most attendees in the U.S. and other wealthy countries such as the U.K. stated they’d had at least their first shot, while Fatima shared that her 75-year-old mother, living in South Africa, had yet to gain access. Evidence shows this anecdotal situation is indicative of the global access crisis for most non-wealthy countries (83% of vaccines to date have gone to wealthier countries).
  • At a time when headlines across much of the world focus on uplifting the important Black Lives Matter movement, and critiques of colonial structures are standard, it is a tragic irony that monopolies on knowledge are keeping poorer countries from accessing vaccines, leaving Black and brown people behind worldwide. It was noted that wealthy countries have a long history of instructing their poorer counterparts on the virtues of democracy and fair dealings, yet are now refusing to act on behalf of world safety.
  • History is repeating itself, but worse. All panelists have been involved in the effort against HIV/AIDS, and noted the parallels between the fight waged two decades ago for equitable access to lifesaving treatments and the current vaccine crisis. This round is even worse due to the lack of transparency in much of the vaccine negotiations, where, for example, a handful of drug companies are insisting on NDAs in the middle of a pandemic where even Members of Parliament don’t know the details of trade deals. This is despite the fact their populations are paying for the vaccine and taking part in clinical trials for medical products currently reserved for wealthy countries.

So much power has been handed over in the past few decades to private actors that it’s going to take us a long time to claw back what we lost in the last year — not only lives lost, but how democracy itself should function.

  • The current system simply does not work. Government interventions and distribution plans such as COVAX are inadequate. We need a new way to get vaccines out, which is in the epidemiological self-interest of all countries considering the variants appearing across the world. Panelists noted that relying upon corporations to act with morality is naive.

Each day that passes without sharing information shows us that the market is more important than human lives.

  • The market won’t save us. This is not the first or last pandemic we’ll experience, especially with climate change. We’ve heard from global leaders and corporations that the free market will get us out of the pandemic, yet so many taxpayer dollars have been spent in the U.S. and U.K. allowing drug companies to walk away with billions in profit.

We are operating under a system in which we’ve socialized the risk and privatized the profits.

  • The only path forward is a new one. The WTO is the biggest obstacle to vaccine equity, and a system that relies upon a trade body to ensure global health is one doomed to fail. We need governments to step in and require companies share life-saving information. As citizens, we must all push our leaders to reimagine our world health system to one focused on global common goods rather than private interests.

Priti Krishtel and Tahir Amin are the co-founders and co-executive directors of the Initiative for Medicines, Access & Knowledge (I-MAK), a nonprofit organization working to address structural inequities in how medicines are developed and distributed.

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I-MAK

A team of lawyers, scientists, and health experts challenging systemic injustice and advocating for health equity in drug development and access.