Boosters, Omicron, and Vaccine Apartheid

As the emergence of the Omicron COVID variant became a variant of concern, governments across the global North responded with a strong message for their populations to get a booster vaccine. This included the UK, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in December that all eligible adults should now come forward and get their third COVID shot, with the booster rollout still ongoing in the new year. Whilst most of us have received or await our third jab, much of the worlds’ population are yet to receive their first, many of whom reside in lower income countries. As the reality of the global vaccine divide becomes increasingly clear, it threatens the lives of people in the global South, obstructs economic recovery, and increases the risks of more variants developing.

The vaccine roll-out has been a fundamental aspect of the worlds’ fight against COVID-19, but it has not been enacted on an even level globally. As of the end of November 2021 around 59.6% of the global population had received at least one dose, but for low-income countries, this number is at just 9.5%. To further put this into perspective, about 71% of the UK are fully-vaccinated. The disparity between vaccination rates in high-income countries and the rest of the world is shockingly clear, but some solutions to help balance out these numbers have been offered by the Western world. COVAX was set up to create a system in which high-income states would assist nearly 100 low-income states relying on the scheme in obtaining the vaccine. It initially aimed to deliver around 2 billion doses by 2022, but this aim was soon reduced to 1 billion doses. By the end of November 2021, less than 596 million doses had been delivered by the scheme – a welcomed donation toward the vaccine roll-out in low-income countries but not enough to adequately provide protection for their populations, and much less than the initiative promised. The failure of COVAX has happened largely in part due to high-income countries in the global North buying up available vaccine stocks – HIC’s bought up over half of the first 7.5 billion doses, more than their share – and continue to buy up these global stocks in order to back up their booster programs. This has deprived the COVAX scheme and LICs of the vaccines they need to provide first and second doses to their own people. The global Norths’ vaccine hoarding can be further seen in the estimation by Medicins Sans Frontieres that just 10 HICs will have more than 870 million excess doses by the end of the year that they will throw away. If the greed and nationalism of the global North obstructs any global co-operation scheme then a more suitable course of action must be undertaken to end this so-called vaccine apartheid. One solution has been called upon by many in the global South, such as India and South Africa: waiving the intellectual property protection on COVID vaccines.

Waiving the intellectual property protection, or patent, on COVID vaccines would mean that the manufacturers that have these patents would not be able to block production of the vaccine, thus allowing vaccine makers in LIC’s to produce the vaccine for their people without facing some kind of legal action. It would also prevent the patent-owning manufacturers, who face no competition within the market, to overcharge poorer nations for the vaccine, something which has occurred in relation to this vaccine and other vaccines in the past. Many people in the West, and in the UK, understand the relief that receiving the COVID vaccine has given them whilst living and working through this pandemic. The desire for safety and protection is not just limited to the West. The right to safety and protection is not just limited to the West either. Waiving the patent would give the global South an opportunity to manufacture the vaccine themselves, and provide this protection for their communities. Boosting the vaccine programs of LICs would also help them begin to recover their economies from the devastation the pandemic has caused, and the likelihood of new variants developing – ones that could be more dangerous than omicron – would decrease. Everyone benefits from increased global vaccine equity, and waiving the patent would provide this. So why won’t they do it?

Pharmaceutical companies and Western states, such as the UK and Canada, alike have come out in opposition to the suggestion of waiving the COVID 19 vaccine patents. Their arguments state that removing patents would discourage drug companies from the very innovating that created the vaccine in the first place, and that there are other methods available for LICs to come into possession of vaccine doses. These other methods, however, have been proven to be less than effective. COVAX fell flat on its face, and suggestions for LICs to apply individually for a patent waiver (as Bolivia has attempted to do) point them down an expensive and long road that many nations simply do not have the time or money to entertain. Of course, pharmaceutical companies would not want to obstruct their opportunities of raking in mass amounts of money, which holding onto the vaccine patent allows them to do. Vaccine apartheid will continue to be a real problem until a solution is provided, with the WHO even asking HICs to hold off on their booster programs until the rest of the world catches up, but waiving the patent makes much more sense and has significant support in the global South.

The booster program is one we should ultimately support and all eligible UK citizens should go and get boosted. This provides an extra layer of protection and comfort for the most vulnerable in our society whilst we continue to face uncertain times. Other societies, no matter how far or different from ours, deserve this too. Waiving the patent on COVID vaccines would give those in the global South the ability to provide protection for their population; something that we, in the West, have taken for granted. Pharmaceutical companies should, at least just this once, put aside their profit-making motives and act in the interest of the health of the global population.

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