‘Disturbing’: Rich Nations Vaccinating Person Per Second While Blocking Effort to Share Recipe With Poor Countries

By Jake Johnson, staff writer at Common Dreams. Originally published at Common Dreams

The governments of the world’s wealthiest countries—including the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom—are facing growing backlash for continuing to block an India and South Africa-led proposal to temporarily waive a restrictive global intellectual property rights agreement, an effort aimed at spurring broad-based production of coronavirus vaccines and getting the shots to poor nations struggling to administer a single dose.

According to Oxfam International, a member of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, “rich countries are vaccinating at a rate of one person per second yet are siding with a handful of pharmaceutical corporations in protecting their monopolies against the needs of the majority of developing countries.”

On Thursday—the one-year anniversary of the WHO’s official global pandemic declaration—representatives from the U.S. and other wealthy nations teamed up to thwart, once again, the push by more than 100 member nations of the World Trade Organization to suspend certain provisions of the so-called TRIPS Agreement, an intellectual property rights arrangement.

The proposal was co-sponsored by 57 countries in the trade group and on Thursday support split largely along the lines of the WTO’s self-identified developed and developing countries,” Law360 reported. “The only developing country to oppose the waiver was Brazil.”

Supporters of the waiver argue the prohibitive patent rights that governments have granted to private pharmaceutical companies are standing in the way of the kind of global vaccination campaign needed to stop the spread of a virus that does not respect borders. Fearing the emergence and normalization of “vaccine apartheid,” the head of the WHO and others have raised alarm over the fact that more than 100 poor nations have not yet been able to start inoculating their populations.

“It is unforgivable that while people are literally fighting for breath, rich country governments continue to block what could be a vital breakthrough in ending this pandemic for everyone in rich and poor countries alike,” Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager, said in a statement.

“During a pandemic that is devastating lives across the planet,” added Marriott, “governments should be using their powers now, not tomorrow, to remove intellectual property rules and ensure pharmaceutical companies work together to share technology and fix raw material shortages, all of which are standing in the way of a massive scale-up in production.”

Despite a fierce lobbying campaign by the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. and elsewhere, support for the India-South Africa proposal has grown since the effort was first tabled in October, with dozens of U.S. members of Congress and more than 100 members of the European Parliament joining a supermajority of WTO member nations in backing the idea. Voicing support for the proposal, one commentator recently called it “an existential threat to the continuing practice of treating medicines as a commodity.”

“There is no reason we have to prioritize the profits of pharmaceutical companies over the dignity of people in other countries,” U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told the New York Times last week.

In a video released on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) urged President Joe Biden to support the TRIPS waiver, arguing that “ending this pandemic requires collaboration, solidarity, and empathy.”

“It is unconscionable,” said Sanders, “that amid a global health crisis, huge multibillion dollar pharmaceutical companies continue to prioritize profits by protecting their monopolies and driving up prices rather than prioritizing the lives of people everywhere, including in the Global South.”

As the Corporate Europe Observatory reported, “If know-how and vaccine recipes are shared, generic manufacturers could start supplying the countries in the back of the queue, for instance the 85 nations set to receive vaccines only in two years time.”

“Had it not been for the stiff resistance by the U.S., Switzerland, Norway, and not least the E.U., that vision could have become a reality,” the organization noted. “But the European Commission has shown no sign of budging at the WTO negotiations. At a meeting in Geneva on 11 March the E.U.’s rejection was reiterated.”

With the U.S. facing accusations of vaccine hoarding as it buys up enough supply to inoculate the eligible population twice over—and refuses to donate excess doses to countries pleading for them—Biden on Friday announced an agreement with Japan, India, and Australia to bolster global vaccine production with the stated goal of remedying shortages in Southeast Asia.

As the Times reported, “the Biden administration committed to providing financial support to help Biological E, a major vaccine manufacturer in India, produce at least one billion doses of coronavirus vaccines by the end of 2022.”

While viewed as a welcome addition to lagging global vaccination efforts, the deal falls well short of the sweeping recipe-sharing that experts and activists say is required to ensure that no one is denied access to a life-saving shot.

Calling the new agreement a “step in the right direction,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said Saturday that Biden must now “take the next step and endorse the TRIPS waiver.”

“The waiver is supported by over 100 countries and being opposed by only a handful of rich countries,” Schakowsky noted. “The world needs as much vaccine manufacturing capacity as it can get. Time is of the essence.”

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  1. johnf

    A vaccination per second is not very fast. Germany, alone, will need to average 6 shots per second, 24/7, to fully immunize 70% of the population by the end of summer.

    1. John Anthony La Pietra

      One “Rent” unit of 525,600 minutes works out to 31,536,000 seconds a year. (Or if you’d prefer a Recommended Daily Application factor to help you parse the jab jibber-jabber, that would be 86,400 doses.)

  2. David

    It’s dishonest to suggest, as the article implicitly does, that there’s some trade-off between vaccinations in “rich” countries and refusal of a relaxation of IP protections. The two are perfectly compatible. I don’t know what list of “rich” countries Oxfam is working off, but vaccination rates in the EU are pitifully low and slow, and this is causing massive political scandals in various countries. So far (checks figures) barely five million people in France have been vaccinated, or rather less than ten per cent of the population. Supposing that this could be accelerated to the selfish, “shocking” figure of one per second: that would mean 60 per minute, 3600 people per hour, and, assuming a 12-hour working day at vaccination centres, fewer than 45,000 per day, which is a lot less than the current (pitiful) rate.

    1. megrim

      Relaxing IP law on this would increase the supply and benefit everyone. Except for shareholders’ pockets, that is.

      1. Michaelmas

        Relaxing IP law on this would increase the supply and benefit everyone.

        No. More than IP protection and a U.S. enforced shortage in the supply chain of things like fermenters and plastics are at work. NC is running two articles about vaccine IP protection today and the writers of both completely fail to mention that currently the two leading vaccines in the West are Pfizer and Moderna — the mRNA vaccines — and simply assume all vaccine technologies are equal and fungible.

        They’re not. If the people who wrote these pieces assume they are, they’re lazy-minded, ignorant, dishonest fools.

        Derek Lowe’s column from SCIENCE magazine is a good educational introduction to what’s actually going on–

        ‘In the last few days, the question of why more drug companies haven’t been enlisted for vaccine has come up ….’The problem is … this is simply wrong. There are not “dozens of other pharma companies” who “stand ready” to produce these mRNA vaccines … here’s why it’s not possible to suddenly unleash dozens of companies to crank out the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

        ‘ …. I’m going to … treat this as a manufacturing process that fell from the sky in its final form. To distill a huge amount of … detail down into the simplified steps, we have:

        Step One: Produce the appropriate stretch of DNA, containing the sequence you need to have transcribed into mRNA. This is generally done in bacterial culture.

        Step Two: Produce that mRNA from your DNA template using enzymes in a bioreactor.

        Step Three: Produce the lipids that you need for the formulation. Some of these are pretty common (such as cholesterol), but the key ones are very much not (more on this below).

        Step Four: take your mRNA and your lipids and combine these into lipid nanoparticles (LNPs). I have just breezed past the single biggest technological hurdle in the whole process).

        Step Five: combine the LNPs with the other components of the formulation (phosphate buffers, saline, sucrose and such) and fill those into vials.

        Step Six: get those vials into trays, into packages, into boxes, into crates, and out the door into trucks and airplanes

        ‘..The DNA production in Step One is not too bad … Pfizer does this themselves in Saint Louis, and Moderna outsources this to … Swiss firm Lonza … DNA plasmid production on an industrial scale is pretty well worked out … a lot of people can do it ….

        ‘That’s not the rate-limiting step. Nor is Step Two, the transcription into mRNA. Pfizer and BioNTech do this in Andover, MA and at BioNTech facilities in Germany … The Moderna mRNA step is also handled in Switzerland by Lonza. Now this is not so common as an industrial process … it’s only relatively recently that people have been treating RNA species as actual drug substances themselves … RNA production is certainly closer to being rate-limiting than Step One, but it’s nothing compared to the real bottlenecks …..

        ‘Now to the lipids in Step Three. This doesn’t have to be done in sequence like the DNA/RNA step, of course – the lipids needed for the formulation are an entirely different production process … Pfizer and BioNTech are getting all of theirs from a UK company called Croda … If you had to, you could surely get some other manufacturers up to speed on the process.

        Ah, but now we get back to Step Four “Welcome to the bottleneck!” Turning a mixture of mRNA and a set of lipids into a well-defined mix of solid nanoparticles with consistent mRNA encapsulation is the hard part. Moderna appears to be doing this step in-house, although details are scarce, and Pfizer/BioNTech seems to be doing this in Kalamazoo, MI and probably in Europe as well. Everyone is almost certainly having to use some sort of specially-built microfluidics device to get this to happen – … Liquids behave quite differently on that scale than they do when you pour them out of drums or pump them into reactors (which is what we’re used to in more traditional drug manufacturing) … (it) involves is a large number of very small reaction chambers, running in parallel, that have equally small and very precisely controlled flows of the mRNA and the various lipid components heading into them. You will have to control the flow rates, the concentrations, the temperature, and who knows what else, and … the channel sizes and the size and shape of the mixing chambers are critical as well.

        These will be special-purpose bespoke machines, and if you ask other drug companies if they have one sitting around, the answer will be “Of course not”. This is not anything close to a traditional drug manufacturing process. And this is the single biggest reason why you cannot simply call up those “dozens” of other companies and ask them to shift their existing production over to making the mRNA vaccines. There are not dozens of companies who make DNA templates on the needed scale. There are definitely not dozens of companies who can make enough RNA. But most importantly, I believe that you can count on one hand the number of facilities who can make the critical lipid nanoparticles. That doesn’t mean that you can’t build more of the machines, but I would assume that Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna (and CureVac as well) have largely taken up the production capacity for that sort of expansion as well.

        ‘…Sanofi, one of the big vaccine players already (and one with their own interest in mRNA) has already announced that they’re going to help out Pfizer and BioNTech. But look at the timelines: here’s one of the largest, most well-prepared companies that could join in on a vaccine production effort, and they won’t have an impact until August.

        There are not “dozens of companies who stand ready” to produce vaccines and “end this pandemic”.

        1. Nigel

          If this is true. Then why oppose the idea. Agreeing to an idea which looks like it will allow everyone to get the vaccine faster us giod PR. But if in reality is impossible then there is nothing to loose, so it’s a win Win for the company. As such something doesn’t add up.

  3. Brooklin Bridge

    Typical of Biden to couch this effort in terms of charity with the US as usual playing the role of global benefactor rather than any focus on the threat of mutations to all of us not to mention basic human rights. But of course the Big Daddy role allows him to continue funneling yet more tax payer money into the hands of Pharmaceutical giants that developed their vaccines with the huge financial help of public funds in the first place.

    Of note, but of no surprise, the main stream media references the amazing creation of the Polio vaccine all the time but never, ever, points out the deeply shameful difference in motive then, that it was freely given to the public by Jonas Salk, versus today when the job of the US president is to protect the profit structure of big pharma even if it means the American tax payer has to pay for every last jab globally at top prices rather than support by those same taxes first of all a humane, but also a vastly more efficient system of local cheap, dependable and plentiful production.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      Adding, if there is a god, I suspect he is playfully and literally putting the solution right in front of our noses in the form a a face mask where the whole idea, the solution to the riddle as it were, is protecting ourselves by protecting others. Biden is the perfect president to epitomize for all to see the result of this life long failure to grasp such a simple concept in both his personal and public life. Whether for his son or for his public as a politician, he has never been able rise above capitalism based in greed as the solution to all problems.

  4. The Rev Kev

    I’m not a biologist but wouldn’t having this virus fester in poorer populations around the world over time would sooner or later see even more novel strains arise? Strains that are not only perhaps more lethal but maybe ones that would blow right through vaccinated people as if they had no protection at all? The net result would be that countries like the US would be right back to January of 2019 when a virus was on its way to an unprotected population – but that this one would be more lethal. Change that. It would not be like going back to 2019 but 1919 instead when the lethal flu virus was coming back to America after a brief world tour. And if you want a nightmare scenario, people would be asking later ‘Remember when this virus had only claimed one million deaths in the US?’

    1. Isotope_C14

      Yes, there is a background mutation rate of roughly 1 to a million for a base to mutate, more virus, more chance to mutate. The global incompetence regarding this topic is depressing, but not shocking. Putting people before profit is the “western” dogma. If people really wanted to end this pandemic, MMR 2 would have been administered as the Mumps component of the vaccine seems to render COVID asymptomatic, if not confer some higher protection.

      I know for a fact they are vaccinating with MMR 2 in Argentina.

      1. JBird4049

        It is almost like they want to have the 1919 Pandemic Redux. It’s either that or they just can’t help being so incompetent or foolish as to risk economic collapse or war just for some extra bank. If this ends with a functioning society, I hope someone does something like The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman about it.

    2. megrim

      I keep thinking about those monkeys typing on typewriters. We’re def trying to produce Shakespeare at this point.

      1. JBird4049

        If it is that “big, beautiful wall,” just why would people get more enthusiastic in coming here to our increasingly sh–hole country?

  5. Tom Stone

    The current approach is a win/win for the right people.
    It thins out the herd, hitting primarily poor people who don’t matter and it lines the pockets of the worthy.
    There’s money to be made and power to be had, the deaths and diminished lives of millions of others is a small price to pay.
    And it’s so much easier when you, personally, don’t have to see and smell the carnage and believe yourself immune from any consequences.

  6. Petter

    I’m not sure how Norway was included in the list of bad, bad rich countries, seeing as Norway hitched its vaccination star to the EU, negotiated through Sweden. But whatever, as it’s gone absolutely swimmingly. As of today, 4,77 precent of the population is fully vaccinated, whereas another 8,34 percent have gotten at least one dose.
    As for my municipaltiy, Lillestrøm, population 87,000, they still haven’t finished vaccinating those over 85. I got message on February 2nd notifying me that I could call and make an appointment but when I called the next day, all appointments were taken. Well it turns out that the I shouldn’t have gotten the notification. What happened is that they had two hundred doses left over after vaccinating almost everyone 85 and over, and fearing that the vaccines would go bad, they opened up vaccinations for those between 75 and 85. And those appointments were quickly taken (obviously).. But, the records showed that there were till a couple of hundred eighty fives and over who hadn’t been vaccinated. So, full stop for those of us over 75.
    Thankfully, everything is now straightened out. As soon as those forgotten/missing 85 year old and over are vaccinated, they’ll start vaccinating the 84 year olds.
    Google translate of latest vaccination info from my municipality:
    Vaccination week 11 (this week me)
    For week 11, we have received 700 vaccine doses with PfizerBioNTech. 50 of these go to dose 2 at institutions, emergency rooms and the rest to residents over 85 years. It is necessary to vaccinate approx. 200 in this group. 1500 over 85 years are now fully vaccinated. When everyone over the age of 85 has received their first vaccine, we start allocating hours to those who are 84 years old this year.
    As for testing, the wait time is five to six days. And in order to be tested you have to log in with your digital Bank ID. Yup.

  7. Thuto

    When it matters the most, the facade of a benevolent West fractures even more, revealed to be what it always was, discretionary and servile to the interests of (in this case) the politically powerful pharmaceutical industry. Much of the Western world is one giant corporate oligarchy with a democratic veneer.

  8. Jan

    What should also be mentioned is the campaign by USA and its five eyes allies to undermine use of the Russian Sputnik V. A recent HHS annual report mentioned that its Office of Global Affairs (OGA) has been used to persuade Brazil to reject the Russian vaccine. It also states that OGA is offering CDC assistance to Panama in lieu of Panama’s acceptance of help from Cuban doctors. See p. 49 of the HHS report: https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/2020-annual-report.pdf
    For more about what our wonderful USA USA is doing to squeeze out the competition to big pharma for the lucrative COVID vaccine market, see https://www.moonofalabama.org/2021/03/us-and-its-five-eye-partners-use-persuasion-sabotage-and-disinformation-to-gain-vaccine-supremacy.html#more

  9. Ook

    “Biden on Friday announced an agreement with Japan, India, and Australia to bolster global vaccine production”

    That’s rich, considering that Japan doesn’t have concrete schedules for the vaccination of their own citizens. My city is talking about maybe doing the old people starting April.

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