The pandemic exposed to the world the brutal face of social inequality caused by capitalism. The poorest and most vulnerable populations are the biggest victims of the virus. They have little possibility of practicing social distancing, there are no tests or medical treatment … or oxygen. Now, the majority will be left without a vaccine, since the vaccines are controlled by the pharmaceutical multinationals and by the imperialist countries.
By PSTU Brazil Editorial Office, 1/27/2021, translated by Natalia Estrada and Yusuf al-Baz
A survey by the NGO Oxfam in association with Amnesty International and Global Justice shows that rich countries have already secured 53% of the most promising vaccines. Meanwhile, 67 poor countries will have enough vaccines to immunize just one in ten people in 2021.
Recently, the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom, revealed that the Covax Facility initiative, a global consortium that aims to promote the development of vaccines for the poorest countries, is failing. This is happening as large laboratories prioritize regulatory approval in countries where profits are higher, rather than allocating doses to WHO.
Corporate intellectual property rights on vaccines threaten even the modest Covax Facility consortium of the WHO, whose proposal is to ensure poor countries with barely 700 million doses in 2021, which is absolutely insufficient for a population of 3.6 billion people. This is why it is urgent to break the patents that are in the hands of large companies. It is the only way to guarantee rapid vaccine production in poor countries and the endangered vaccination campaign in Brazil.
Does the lack of supplies threaten vaccination in Brazil?
Yes, in Brazil, the production of the Oxford / AstraZeneca and CoronaVac vaccines, by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) and by the Butantan Institute, respectively, depends on the arrival of the Active Pharmaceutical Input (IFA), the active ingredient of vaccines. The lack of this input can interrupt the vaccination campaign against Covid-19 in the country. The IFA for both types of vaccine is produced in China, and the delay in the delivery process will delay the entire vaccine production schedule in Brazil.
Between the Oxford / AstraZeneca and CoronaVac vaccines, Brazil has so far 12.8 million doses. This number is only enough to vaccinate 40% of the population that has been prioritized by the Federal Government for the initial phase of immunization – health workers, people aged 75 years and over, people over 60 years of age who are in nursing homes or geriatric clinics, indigenous populations and riparian towns and communities.
Brazil is totally dependent on China and India for the manufacture of vaccine inputs. At this time, Butantan awaits the arrival of IFA to resume production of 46 million doses.
Why is it necessary to break the patents?
Under these circumstances, only breaking up the patents will allow Brazil to produce the Oxford / AstraZeneca and CoronaVac vaccines for the priority groups. Today Butantan has the capacity and could be manufacturing a million doses per day, but production has been halted because it depends on supplies made by the Chinese laboratory Sinovac.
Breaking the patents would also end the commercial secrecy of laboratories that are producing vaccines with new technologies, such as messenger RNA vaccines, produced by Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna. The “vaccine of the rich”, as it has been called, is being applied only in the centers of global capitalism — the United States and Europe.
Ending the patents would also allow the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is applied in just one dose and, therefore, would enable a speedier immunization of the population. In addition, further generations of more effective vaccines could be used as they emerge.
To eradicate the virus, it is necessary to vaccinate about 70% of the population, that is, more than 140 million people [in Brazil]. This means that the country needs over 300 million doses of the vaccine. The faster the vaccination, the lower the risk of mutation of the virus, which can develop more deadly and resistant variants to the vaccines currently being developed.
The Unified Health System (SUS, from its initials in Portuguese) has the capacity for mass vaccinations against Covid-19. In the past, SUS’s National Immunization Program (PNI) vaccinated 10 million children against polio in a single day. No other country in the world has that capacity, but we lack vaccines.
Is the Bolsonaro government against breaking the patents?
In October 2020, India and South Africa proposed to the World Trade Organization (WTO) that there be no trade sanctions for countries that infringe on patents on drugs and vaccines against Covid-19. The idea was to increase production capacity and put biotechnology laboratories and institutes at the service of global immunization.
However, the imperialist countries opposed this proposal. Among those nations, were the headquarters of large pharmaceutical industries — the United States, the European Union countries, Switzerland, Norway, Canada, Japan and Australia. Guided by Bolsonaro, Brazil also voted against ending the patents, behaving like a puppet of imperialism. On January 18, while the health system in Manaus was collapsing, the WHO reconsidered the matter. This time, Brazil abstained and did not vote in favor of breaking patents.
In addition, Bolsonaro spent more money on the now discredited hydroxychloroquine treatment and ineffective tests (almost US $ 98 million) than on all the research and innovation against Covid-19 (just over US $ 85 million).
Why are imperialist and pharmaceutical countries against patent infringement?
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, pharmaceutical corporations have maintained their strict control over intellectual property rights, while pursuing secret and monopolistic trade agreements that exclude many developing countries from benefiting,” explains Sidney Wong, executive director of the campaign for access to medication of the NGO Doctors Without Borders.
The race for the vaccine turned into a huge and lucrative business for these corporations. The Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca company saw its net profit increase from US $ 299 million to US $ 648 million. Financial analysts assess that Pfizer and the American Moderna company made at least US $ 32 billion from vaccines in 2021. For his part, the founder of BioNTech, the German Uğur Şahin, increased his personal fortune bymore than US $ 5 billion, thus entering the list of the 500 greatest billionaires on the Bloomberg list of wealthiest people.
It is worth remembering that almost all of the investigations that culminated in the development of vaccines against Covid-19 came from public investments. AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer / BioNTech together received more than $ 5 billion in public investments. Pfizer has 96% of its production already guaranteed to rich countries, and Moderna, 100%.
Vaccine development and production could be the business of the century. For this reason, the corporations and governments of the imperialist countries are against opening up their intellectual property rights.
The case of China also involves commercial interests. The press has been calling the Chinese offensive “vaccine diplomacy.” The objective would be to occupy markets and strengthen the country’s position in places where China already has an important role in trade and infrastructure. Thus, China is using its laboratories as pieces in Chinese strategy in the export of capital and in the dispute and conquest of markets for its capitalist businesses.
One of China’s biggest interests in Brazil is to enable Huawei’s bid for the implementation of 5G internet in the country. Aligned with Trump’s trade war, Bolsonaro had restricted the participation of the Chinese company in the 5G bidding. China responded by leveraging its vaccines to Brazil, offering access to a free supply of vaccines in exchange for the participation of Huawei in the 5G process. The result was that the Brazilian government ordered its Ministry of Communications to negotiate with the Chinese.
Sovereignty, Investment in science and vaccine production
The way to stop the pandemic and save more lives is to crack open vaccine patents and to invest massively in technology to produce them in Brazil. Otherwise, the country runs the risk of repeating the Manaus tragedy throughout the country.
Today, the main national scientific institutes are dismantled due to frequent budget cuts. The governor of São Paulo, João Doria, likes to pose for photos with the Butantan apron but showed his real colors in August of last year, when he introduced bill 529/20, a measure that will result in the near elimination of funds for state-led scientific investigations.
Fiocruz faces the same reality. In addition, Bolsonaro cut 68.9% of the import quota of equipment and supplies for scientific research. The measure mainly affects the actions carried out by the Butantan Institute and by Fiocruz in the fight against the pandemic.
In Brazil, at least fifteen groups trying to develop an immunization against coronavirus received the US $ 2.7 million handout from the federal government. In comparison, the US, for example, invested more than US $ 1 billion in the Moderna vaccine alone, and more than US $ 10 billion in the development of Covid vaccines as a whole.
Twenty years ago, Brazil produced half the amount of IFA for other vaccines and drugs used in the region. Today, with the lack of investment in science and technology and with the delay of industrialization, it produces only 5%. That reality needs to change. Massive investment is required so that Brazil can produce medicines and vaccines and break external dependency.
Original article in Portuguese here, also available in Spanish here