Global solidarity: the essential ingredient to defeat COVID-19

Visitors entrance at Merck KGaA in Darmstadt, Germany. Photo: Armin Kübelbeck
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It was big news in mid-July: a Russian outfit with the improbable name of Cozy Bear was engaged in cyber espionage, stealing data from labs that were researching COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. There were howls from UK spies that such activity is “despicable.” The Australian Signals Directorate issued a statement demanding this “cease immediately,” labelling the actions by “malicious cyber actors…seeking to exploit the current pandemic for their own gain” as “completely unacceptable behaviour.” As part of the Five-Eyes intelligence alliance with the U.S., UK, Canada and New Zealand, Australia engages in industrial spying. It saw absolutely nothing wrong with planting hundreds of bugs in the government Cabinet room of Timor-Leste to secure commercial advantage in oil talks. Nor did it have an issue with listening in on the Indonesian President’s phone calls. 

Despite the confected shock, the real scandal is hardly that Russia is spying! It is that, in the midst of the most serious health crisis in a century, this information is not freely shared among all researchers as part of a global effort to find safe treatments and vaccines quickly and distribute them on a mass scale. Instead, it is business as usual — with secrecy instead of sharing. The intellectual property regime rules supreme! 

In the race for vaccines and treatments, there is more at stake than national pride. The country first to develop a vaccine can use this as a weapon for geopolitical advantage. 

There are huge profits to be made from vaccines that make it to production. The global vaccine market is predicted to grow by $13.81 billion (U.S.) by 2024. But vaccine development is a long and risky business, which requires investment and patience. The preferred business model of big pharma is to “socialise the risk” through public research funding, and then “privatise the profits” once the hard work is done.

Missed opportunities. The current pandemic is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Chinese scientists quickly identified its similarity to other coronaviruses, particularly SARS-CoV-1, which emerged in 2002, and MERS-CoV, which appeared in 2012. Despite solid progress, no vaccine was produced for either. A U.S. team in Houston developed a prototype, but was refused funding for a clinical trial. On this occasion, with the pandemics under control, there was not enough profit to be made. Had this vital project proceeded, the current quest for a virus would be far more advanced.

More than 150 vaccine candidates are currently under development globally. The process is lengthy, involving multi-stage clinical trials. It’s more than secrecy hampering this race for a vaccine. A chronic problem is short-term thinking producing fragmented funding models. The story is the same in public institutions across the world — medical research is expensive, while grants are project-based and increasingly scarce. Job insecurity is growing as rapidly as budgets shrink for university and hospital research departments. 

Public under-investment gives pharmaceutical giants and wealthy philanthropists the most power when it comes to setting priorities. The demands of shareholders trump public health every time. The sector spends more on marketing than it does on research! 

Big industry names include Glakso Smith Kline, Merck, Pfizer, Roche, Johnson and Johnson and Sanofi. Up there with them is CSL, headquartered in Melbourne. Established in 1916 as the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory, it was privatised by the Labor government in 1994, one of many victims of neoliberalism. Today, it is the third largest publicly listed company in Australia. The boards and CEOs of these giants decide what gets produced, and it’s not determined by need. Profitable operations — such as making small changes to other companies’ products, to get around patent laws, or marketing remedies for coughs and colds, with little proven effect — attract most funds. And the profits roll in!

Say no to price gouging and toxic nationalism. These companies are also alert for opportunities to repurpose what they’re already producing, in order to make a quick killing. A good example is the antiviral drug Remdesivir. It will cost less than a dollar per dose to produce. Yet a 5-day course is being marketed in the U.S. for $2,340! Gilead owns the patent, but taxpayers contributed more than $70 million for its development. Enter the Trump administration, which has bought up the entire supply until October! 

As COVID-19 continues to spread — with nothing to slow the pace except physical distancing, hand hygiene and masks — many health experts warn about the dangers of vaccine nationalism and treatment hoarding. International collaboration on prevention and life-saving treatment has never been more urgent. To make this happen, it’s essential to lift the veil of secrecy and put an end to profit-based competition and restrictions. COVID-19 shows, more than ever, why we need to make human needs the driver of production and distribution of goods and services! 

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