Campaigners have accused the government of putting pharmaceutical company profits before people’s lives, ahead of a top-level trade meeting at which the UK is expected to join Germany and the EU in resisting moves to allow developing countries to produce their own coronavirus vaccines.
Speaking ahead of a meeting of the World Trade Organisation general council on Tuesday, the director of the Global Justice Now movement said it was shameful that Britain had “thrown more vaccines in the bin than it has donated or exported to date”.
The WTO meeting comes amid warnings over the emergence of harmful new Covid-19 variants in developing countries which have so far been left largely unvaccinated.
A joint report by the Wellcome Trust and Institute for Government (IfG) think tanks warned that virus mutations will “chip away” at the protection offered by vaccines, while government scientific adviser Sir Jeremy Farrar said jabs must be made available to all globally “for geopolitics, for science and public health, and for the moral and ethical argument”.
More than 3 million people have died worldwide from Covid-19 since India and South Africa first proposed an intellectual property (IP) waiver on vaccines last October. More than 130 countries, including the US, now back the idea, which would permit the establishment of vaccine factories in countries and regions currently facing jab shortages.
But WTO negotiators are expected to delay a decision to October in the hope of reaching consensus, with Germany – operating through the EU – and the UK remaining the most strident opponents of the so-called “Trips waiver”.
Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn last week pushed back hard against pleas to “free the vaccines”, arguing that for companies like BioNTech – the developer of the Pfizer jab – it was “the first time that they actually make a profit”.
Campaigners say that a further 1 million people could die during the three-month wait for a decision. They argue that donations of doses through the global Covax scheme are no substitute for allowing developing countries to make their own supplies.
Global Justice Now director Nick Dearden said: “Millions have died while the governments of rich countries have been bickering over monopoly rights for Covid-19 vaccines. Every one of those deaths is a mark of shame for the governments of countries like the UK and Germany who have protected patents over human lives.
“Britain has thrown more vaccines in the bin than it has donated or exported to date. No wonder most countries don’t trust the rich world to deal with Covid-19. At the very least, it’s time we got out of the way and allowed countries to make their own jabs. Many of the deaths we mourn today could have been prevented if not for the shameful intransigence of governments like our own.”
Oxfam’s health policy manager Anna Marriott, added: “In the UK vaccines are giving us hope, yet our government continues to prevent developing countries from having the same.
“As the number of cases increases in many poorer countries, the UK government continues to block the Trips waiver, which would allow qualified manufacturers around the world to ramp up production so everyone can access them.
“We know this would help increase vaccine supplies and save lives, yet the UK government continue to put pharmaceutical company profits first.”
London School of Economics IP expert Dr Luke McDonagh was a driving force behind a letter signed by 120 academics from around the world earlier this year urging the UK government, along with Australia, Brazil, Japan, Norway, Switzerland and the EU, to drop their opposition to the waiver.
He told The Independent: “All of the big industrialised countries have five or six times the supplies they need on order. The World Health Organisation has said that health care workers around the world should be prioritised, and yet we have unvaccinated doctors in countries like Uganda dying while Pfizer say they want to supply third doses to the US.
“The pharmaceutical companies say that they will have produced the 11 billion doses needed to protect the world by the end of the year, but that still doesn’t mean that the developing world will have enough to protect its population.”
Dr McDonagh said that, while the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was being produced on a not-for-profit basis, it appeared the UK was resisting the IP waiver in order to avoid the danger of British companies missing out on potential profits on booster jabs expected to be delivered annually for years into the future.
The joint IfG/Wellcome report released on Monday said low and middle-income countries are still only sequencing a tiny proportion of Covid cases – leaving the planet “flying blind” when it comes to tracking and responding to potential new variants.
Global leaders must define an acceptable level of domestic vaccination and supply, and agree what surplus vaccines can be committed to the global effort, it said.
The report stated: “With approaching half a million new cases being recorded per day globally – a figure that is rising – it is likely that further dangerous variants will emerge.”
It added: “While most scientists do not currently expect a new variant to emerge that will fully evade vaccines, what are more likely are variants that ‘chip away’ at vaccines’ effectiveness.”
Urging wealthy nation government to commit greater resources, the report found that vaccinating the whole world to the level of rich countries requires around 11 billion doses at a cost of around £36bn – around £26bn more than has so far been spent.
At the recent summit hosted by Boris Johnson in Cornwall, the G7 agreed to share only 1 billion doses within the next year – only enough to give around 13 per cent of the global population just one dose.
A government spokesperson said: “The UK is proud to be playing a leading role in the global effort to create and distribute Covid-19 vaccines. The government supported the development of the Oxford AstraZeneca, which is being made available at cost worldwide.
“We are engaging constructively with the US and other WTO members on the waiver issue and will carefully review any proposal submitted to the Trips Council, but we need to act now to expand vaccine production and distribution worldwide.
“The UK wants to push ahead with pragmatic action, including voluntary licensing and technology transfer agreements for vaccines, support for Covax, and solutions for production bottlenecks and supply chain issues.”