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Call for Covid-19 vaccine to be free so it's 'not auctioned off to the highest bidder'

Oxfam has warned that rich countries and industry could prevent or delay the vaccine from reaching vulnerable people.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/PhotobyTawat

VACCINATING 3.7 BILLION people, the poorest half of the global population, against Covid-19 could cost less than the amount of money made by the 10 biggest pharmaceutical companies in four months, Oxfam has said.

The NGO is urging governments and pharmaceutical companies to guarantee that the Covid-19 vaccine, whenever it is available, will be “patent-free and equitably distributed” and “not auctioned off to the highest bidder”.

Oxfam has warned that rich countries and industry – “driven by national or private interests” – could prevent or delay the vaccine from reaching vulnerable people, especially those living in poorer countries.

Researchers from all over the world are racing to create a Covid-19 vaccine, which is expected to take up to 18 months.

Billions of euro is being pumped into research to find a vaccine and treatment, and Ireland has pledged €18 million towards the global effort.

The EU has proposed the voluntary pooling of patents for coronavirus vaccines, treatments and tests in their draft resolution for the World Health Assembly, which is due to take place next week.

Health ministers from 194 countries will attend the virtual meeting on Monday, 18 May.

“If made mandatory and worldwide, this would ensure that all countries could produce, or import low cost versions, of any available vaccines, treatments, and tests,” a spokesperson for Oxfam said.

The Gates Foundation has estimated that the cost of procuring and delivering a safe and effective vaccine to the world’s poorest people is $25 billion (over €23 billion).

Last year, the top 10 pharmaceutical companies made $89 billion in profits – an average of just under $30 billion (about €27.7 billion) every four months, Oxfam noted.

‘Highest bidder’

Jim Clarken, Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland, said: “Anything less than guaranteeing that a vaccine is made available free of charge to all people is unacceptable – this is a global pandemic, which demands global responses and solidarity.

“Vaccines, tests and treatments should be distributed according to need, not auctioned off to the highest bidder. We need safe, patent-free vaccines, treatments and tests that can be mass produced worldwide, and a clear and fair plan for how they will be distributed.”

Clarken said that once vaccines or treatments are developed, there is “a high risk that rich and powerful governments will outbid poorer nations and force their way to the front of the queue, as they did in the scramble for other essential medical supplies such as personal protective equipment and oxygen”.

“Many poor countries are unable to access essential vaccines and medicines due to patent rules which give pharmaceutical companies monopoly rights and the power to set prices well above what they can afford.

“Delivering an affordable vaccine for everyone will require unprecedented global cooperation,” Clarken said.

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He added that governments “must rip up the rulebook and prioritise the health of people everywhere, over the patents and profits of pharmaceutical corporations”.

Oxfam also wants mandatory sharing of all coronavirus-related knowledge, data and intellectual property.

Vaccines, treatments, and tests “should be produced and supplied at the lowest cost possible to governments and agencies, ideally no more than $2 a dose for a vaccine, and provided free at the point of delivery to everyone that needs it”, a spokesperson added.

The Department of Health had not replied to a request for comment at the time of publication.

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Órla Ryan

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