south asia watch on trade, economics and environment

Geopolitics raises ugly head in life-and-death struggle

Paras Kharel

That the world is an iniquitous place is no profound statement. Yet, it is still shocking to see people dropping dead from COVID by the hundreds per hour because sufficient production of vaccines and their equitable distribution could not be ensured even as finger-pointing and geopolitically motivated rabble-rousing were in full display over the last year.

Estimates have it that at least 70 percent of the world's population must be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. COVAX, the global arrangement aimed at ensuring fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all, has a target of vaccinating 20 percent of the global population—and even that is appearing to be a tall order. According to a Duke University study, as of mid-January, 60 percent of the more than seven billion vaccine doses purchased globally had gone to high-income countries, which represent only 16 percent of the world’s population. More than 75 percent of vaccines worldwide have been administered in just 10 countries. The World Health Organization (WHO)’s Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has described the vaccine crisis as a "scandalous" inequity.

A litany of mistakes and missteps and the wearing of geopolitical blinkers on the part of influential nations on the world stage contributed to the crisis. Some rich countries placed advanced purchase orders for vaccines enough to vaccinate their people several times over. They stockpiled the precious commodity. They banned the export of vaccines, including those they had not authorized for domestic use. They imposed restrictions on the export of raw materials used in vaccine production. COVAX remains an abandoned ship. There was an organized attempt to discredit alternative vaccines on spurious grounds—the underlying geopolitical motive barely hiding just beneath the surface.

Consumed by crass geopolitical rivalry, nations flexing or aspiring to flex their muscles on the global ring were out of tune with ground realities—including those concerning the capacity, or lack thereof, of individual countries to produce and supply vaccines for the world. For India and the geopolitical bloc it has embraced, the assumption or conferral of the title of the world's pharmacy quickly proved to be an exercise in self-delusion. The vicious second wave in India served as a rude awakening. It was foolhardy of a section of world leaders to invest all vaccine hopes in a single country while refusing to accept the alternatives offered by rival powers. Oh—how the connotation of "vaccine diplomacy" has changed in but one year! Truth be told, Western hopes that India would rise to the occasion, à la a knight in shining armour, to be the world's vaccine-supplier-in-chief were partly born of the desire to see a strengthened role of Quad in undercutting the significant role in the worldwide provision of vaccines scripted by China, either through direct exports or collaborative production. Poisonous geopolitics constrained some poor countries from exercising their full range of options for procuring vaccines. Diversifying one's sources of supplies is a sane strategy even in normal times. And COVID times are far from normal. It is only rational to secure vaccine supplies from multiple sources. But basic caution was sacrificed on the altar of geopolitics of, by and for outsiders—at the behest of both real and wannabe global powers. Until the second wave came calling in India, disabusing all and sundry of the ludicrous notion of a single global pharmacy.

Spurred by the devastating second wave in India, the United States at long last agreed in principle to consider waiving intellectual property protection over COVID vaccines. India and South Africa had tabled a proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in October 2020 for a temporary waiver, for COVID medical supplies, of the provisions in the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The US, the European Union, Switzerland and Japan, among other developed countries, had vehemently opposed the proposal, which had the support of over 60 WTO members. While it could well take months for the WTO membership to reach a consensus decision to waive intellectual property protection on vaccines—and it is far from certain that members currently opposed to the proposed waiver will support the same, not to mention the pressure that will be brought to bear by the pharmaceutical lobby in the US itself—it is nevertheless significant that the US, ever in the vanguard of intellectual property protection in global fora, has agreed to a waiver, albeit temporarily, to ease the supply of and access to COVID vaccines. This, however, speaks as much to the urgency of the pandemic as to the perceived challenge to maintaining the US-led world order, driven home vividly by the crisis in India, a key developing country in the Western strategy to contain China.

Predictably, the pharma industry is up in arms against the Biden administration's acquiescence—a sacrilege to them. They have powerful allies among the political class in the US, as well as across the Atlantic. They will fight tooth and nail at the WTO, where the matter could drag on for many months. Already, Big Pharma and the votaries of unabridged intellectual property rights have gone into overdrive with the message and argument that waiving intellectual property protection is not going to result in increased availability of the life-saving vaccines, and that it will take more than the waiver to enable facilities in developing countries to start or expand vaccine production. Responding to these attempts to queer the intellectual-property-protection-wavier pitch are credible voices, from academia to the WHO—not to mention the over five dozen countries pressing for a waiver at the WTO—that hold intellectual property protection in its current form as the biggest obstacle to ensuring adequate supplies of, and affordable and equitable access to, COVID vaccines.

Stripped of political correctness, where does the Biden administration really stand in the intellectual property debate as it relates to COVID vaccines? Deep down, does it subscribe to Big Pharma's argument that the waiver is not going to lead to greater production? Is its acquiescence to the proposed waiver, then, just a gimmick aimed at appeasing the domestic Left gallery and an empty promise to keep the world community occupied? Or, does it believe that the waiver will be instrumental in bringing about vaccine relief, as has been argued forcefully by eminent scholars and activists, including those based on US soil, and by the WHO itself? It is in the interests of the world that the latter is the case. The US will have a pivotal role to play in steering WTO negotiations on the waiver to a speedy and meaningful conclusion with the intended effect.

Ideally, cooperation among all three leaders in COVID vaccine technology—the West (the US, the UK and the EU), Russia and China—and the world's leader in mass vaccine production prior to the pandemic (India) is the first-best outcome for a humanity facing one of its greatest crises ever. The record so far since the outbreak of COVID makes this wishful thinking. The non-elites in the vast majority of poor countries without the ability to manufacture vaccines fervently hope that even if geopolitics does not allow active and constructive engagement among the feuding powerful nations to facilitate access to vaccines on humane terms and conditions, it will at least not become the arbiter of life and death in a vaccine-scarce world.

Dr. Kharel is Research Director at SAWTEE.