Fighting the pandemic from the South: asymmetries and challenges

Edmé Dominguez R | 8 January 2021

Among the enormous amount of news that reaches us every day regarding the COVID pandemic, there are important stories that we never have the opportunity to read. While many of these stories escape our notice entirely, others find traction on social media. This blog post details one such story.


You have probably heard about vaccine hoarding or efforts undertaken by countries in the Global North to purchase the vast majority of available COVID-19 vaccine doses. Since vaccines are scarce, hoarding guarantees that citizens of wealthy countries will have access to the vaccine while citizens of less wealthy countries will not. But you probably have not heard about why most countries have been priced out of the vaccine race or efforts undertaken to combat big pharma and secure life-saving medicines on a global scale.


The lesser-known story of fighting the pandemic from, for, and by the Global South began on 2 October 2020 when India and South Africa petitioned the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily waive patents relating to COVID-19. If granted, the waiver would provide countries in need with access to medicines, vaccines, diagnostics, and other types of technology related to the treatment of the virus. The waiver would last for the duration of the pandemic or until the so-called “herd immunity” is achieved.


The waiver of patents and intellectual property rights associated with life-saving medicines is nothing new. A similar waiver was granted during the Doha round of the WTO in 2003 in order to combat the AIDS epidemic. The 2003 waiver allowed drug companies in countries such as Brazil. Mexico, and South Africa to produce generic versions of the cocktail of drugs used to treat AIDS, reducing the cost of antiretrovirals by 99%. Today, the waiver has allowed approximately 25 million people infected by AIDS to live normally.


In the case of COVID, the waiver would cover all the countries that need it to reduce the economic burdens that represent the acquisition of all the medicines, equipment, and vaccines necessary in the fight against the pandemic at a time of extreme economic fragility.


India and South Africa proposed the waiver at the WTO-TRIPS council meeting on 15-16 October 2020. During this session, Kenya and Eswatini joined as co-proponents of the initiative, and almost 100 countries, including China and several Latin American countries, supported it while nine voted against it. Unsurprisingly, these nine included the United States, the European Union, Australia, Canada, Switzerland, the UK, Japan, and Brazil. In addition, the initiative was supported by NGOs such as the Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, the UN and AIDS joint program (UNAIDS), the group of experts from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Health Organization (WHO), and by more than 300 organizations of the world civil society.


The discussions within the WTO council continued during December and early 2021. Meanwhile, activists are preparing global campaigns like the one on 8 December 2020, including a Twitter storm under the hashtag #NoCovidMonopolies. The protest coincided with a meeting of the WTO committee.


It will not be easy to achieve this waiver. Why? The most powerful pharmaceutical companies on the planet are Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Roche, Novartis, Merck & Co, Sanofi, AbbVie, Takeda, Shanghai Pharmaceuticals Holding. Their income ranges from $56 to $27 billion. Except for Shanghai Pharmaceuticals, all of these companies are based in the United States, Europe, or Japan. Although they are essentially transnational, these companies and the countries that host them represent the purest form of capitalist globalization.


These companies’ primary motivation, their reason for being, is not global health but profit at all costs. They often enjoy subsidies or financial support for their research and the products they produce. In the case of COVID-19, these companies designed, trialed, and produced vaccinations in record time, knowing that they have a secure market for sale and profit. Many of the ingredients in these vaccinations come from China or developing countries. However, as in almost all free trade processes, source countries are not those who benefit most from the final product.


Sometimes this asymmetry can be reversed, at least partially, to the countries most in need through special clauses in institutions such as the WTO. In these cases, giant movements are necessary. In the case of the proposed COVID-19 waiver, efforts to stop vaccine hoarding and get vaccines to countries in the Global South have gone virtually unnoticed in mainstream media. That 100 countries support it does not matter if seven of the most powerful oppose it, which reflects the power asymmetries in the world today. The countries in the Global North have responded with the COVAX alliance for the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as diagnostics and treatments, and guarantee rapid, fair and equitable access to them for people in all countries. However, MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) is not so confident of this project and demands transparency from the two pharmaceutical corporations involved about “price, supply and distribution of the potential future vaccine, if proven safe and effective”.


Another reflection that this campaign awakens is the need to create more infrastructure, more research in Global South countries. The problem is not merely that these countries cannot afford to buy the vaccine, but they do not have the resources to produce one independently. Countries that already possess this infrastructure need to support other countries in developing it. In other words, it is not only a question of supporting campaigns like the one mentioned in this post but of building consistent medium and long-term strategies of scientific development that help reduce the structural dependence of the Global South on the North. What is desperately needed is solidarity, not greed.

Keywords: #COVID19 #GlobalSouth #WTO #vaccine #pandemic #GlobalInequality #TRIPS #WTOTRIPS

Edmé Dominguez R is Associate professor in Peace and Development Research, with a PhD on the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Her present interests are on Latin America, IPE and gender issues but she keeps an eye on the former Soviet republics, in particular regarding the women’s situation.