Capitalising on the Pandemic
Post the first wave of COVID-19, people across the world were hoping to have access to vaccination. On December 31, 2020, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine received emergency validation from the World Health Organisation (WHO). It was the first vaccine which was made available for public use. Since then, multiple vaccines have been made available for use across nations. Oxford/AstraZeneca, Moderna and Sputnik are some of the most common vaccines which are being used as of today.
All major producers observed a huge surge in sales and revenues. AstraZeneca was the only manufacturer to witness a decrease in its profits compared to their gains in 2020. They claim that they have ‘no regrets’ associated with the falling share of profits on their vaccine, as it is benefiting people and preventing hospitalisation.
However, the not-for-profit vaccine schemes washed out within a year. The new contracts signed by big pharmas were all for profit. All major vaccine producers are now banking on this pandemic, which doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. The latest Omicron variant has increased the demands for booster doses which will increase demands from all nations.
In May 2021, Pfizer stated that, “they brought in $3.5 billion in revenue during the first three months of the year”. Although they never disclosed their profit numbers, they reiterated their previous predictions that the profit margins on the vaccine would be in the top 20% range. Unlike others, this was just one vaccine giant willing to talk about numbers.
As the gains continue to soar high for the pharmaceuticals, some of the poorest nations remain largely unvaccinated. According to some reports, vaccine producers like Pfizer, BioNtech and Moderna are using their monopolies to earn huge profits by signing favourable contracts. Most of their dealings are with rich governments while only less than 1% of their vaccine supplies are being delivered to the low income countries. Large parts of the African population still remain unvaccinated.
As per the reports, by August 2020, the USA had secured 800 billion doses of at least six different vaccines in the process of development. This was followed by the UK, the world’s highest per capita buyer with 340 million doses; approximately five doses for each citizen. The European Union nations which ordered doses as a group were not far behind and had acquired deals for around hundred million doses.
A United Nations press released on 16th April 2021 quoted Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO); “of the 832 million vaccine doses administered, 82 per cent have gone to high- or upper‑middle-income countries, while only 0.2 per cent have been sent to their low-income counterparts. In high‑income countries alone, 1 in 4 people have been vaccinated, a ratio that drops precipitously to 1 in 500 in poorer countries”.
As this data suggests, vaccine equity is a real challenge of our time. The world is failing to deal with it and will have to bear the consequences in no time. It also gives rise to a major debate on whether COVID-19 vaccines should be considered a public good.
UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC) and the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) have asked for a reevaluation of the current vaccination strategies, urging that vaccines should be treated as a global public good. They should be equitably available to all nations and not only those capable of placing the highest bids.
Experts from the scientific community and other organisations have been reiterating the importance of vaccines for all. They believe that in order to prevent the rapid spread of newer variants, immunisation plays a major role, but a minimum of 60-70% of the world population needs to be vaccinated for that. The vaccines are capable of ensuring less severity of disease along with lower rates of hospitalisation, while also reducing chances of virus mutations and spread in short periods of time.
India and South Africa have initiated talks about waiving off the intellectual property rights of the big pharmas. This move is backed by several countries and international organisations who support the principle that every country should have the right to produce their own vaccines during a pandemic. However, the pharmaceuticals industry along with some high income nations are not in favour of this proposal.
It is believed that this would allow nations to produce vaccines as per their own demand. The so-called Nobel Pharma doesn't seem to agree with this idea and claims that due to shortage of raw materials it would take years to produce vaccines from scratch. Analysing the situation, it won’t be wrong to assume that vaccines are being seen as liquid gold and the major pharmaceutical companies are leaving no stone unturned in their quest to increase revenues.
A similar inequality exists in my country, i.e. India.
India’s vaccination drive started in January 2021 prior to the fatal second wave. The drug regulatory body of India approved the use of Covaxin, a home-grown vaccine manufactured by Bharat Biotech, and Covishield (Oxford/AstraZeneca), manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII). They have been producing nearly 100 million doses each month since January 2021.
Considering the huge inequality, vaccines are provided free of cost through central and state government collaborations. These doses are available at government-run dispensaries, hospitals and institutions have turned into vaccination centres to assist the ongoing efforts of the government.
Despite the strategies in place, the vaccination drive has been hampered multiple times due to shortage of supply of doses in the first initial months and other pragmatic reasons such as hesitance regarding immunisation, far off distance of vaccination centres from villages, etc. The government cannot shrug off its responsibility by providing doses free of cost and not ensuring equitable distribution of the public good.
The administration has to further strengthen its outreach to ensure availability of vaccines to the most vulnerable sections of the society residing in far off areas of rural India. In order to prevent the horrors of an upcoming third wave, immunisation among the adult population is essential.
The latest Omicron variant of Coronavirus was first detected in South Africa. It's only been two months and the cases have been rising exponentially across the globe. The only way to reduce severity and fatalities in the coming few weeks is mass scale vaccination.
What started out as a pandemic has taken the form of an endemic! It is a global health crisis which needs to be dealt with in a unified manner. It's about time that big pharma and first world nations understand their collective responsibility to provide for the lower income nations. The mutations are not limited to continents and thus, a mutual effort is required.
Capitalising on a pandemic, which can be termed as a humanitarian crisis, isn’t a wise decision. Protecting global health should be prioritised at all costs. Vaccine as a global public good would do more good to humanity in the long run rather than the short lived profits of big pharmas.
Here's to hoping for a safe and healthy year ahead!
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