28th May 2022


Don't Look Up - but for vaccines

  • In the Netflix film, the president ignores the diplomatic efforts of international allies to solve a global threat - choosing instead to press ahead unilaterally with a plan devised by a corporate CEO (Photo: Screengrab/Netflix)
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The world is heading for catastrophe. Thankfully scientists have found a way to keep people safe. The public money spent on research has paid off. Relief. All the politicians have to do is follow the science. Then someone with the ear of the president reminds them about the commercial interests at stake.

Netflix's new satirical disaster movie, Don't Look Up, is primarily a warning about our failure to act on climate change but it's plot will seem strangely familiar to anyone who has observed the European Union's approach to Covid-19 vaccines, particularly when it comes to the issue of a patent waiver.

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The EU has poured billions of public money into the development of vaccines and at its onset EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen rightly said "no one is safe until everyone is safe."

But when the time came to redeem the value of those investments, it quickly became clear that, as was the case in Meryl Streep's White House, the shots were not being called by the president but by CEOs.

In this case, those of major pharmaceutical manufacturers.

First, their vaccine monopolies caused problems for Europe itself. The commission struggled to negotiate down the price demanded by Big Pharma companies but then found Europe was hit by major delays to promised deliveries of millions of doses amid allegations that drugmakers simply diverted supplies to higher bidders at the cost of lives and people's livelihoods.

Secretive deals finally secured a steady supply of vaccines for Europe, but the world's poorest countries are still paying a high price.

While many of the details of these deals remain hidden, it's on the record that they place strict limits on the number of doses which can be donated without the permission of manufacturers.

Those clauses are designed to "hamper vaccine transfers" that manufacturers "deem prejudicial to their commercial interests", according to the German government's health ministry.

That has contributed to the EU falling far behind its target of donating 250 million vaccines. The result is that while 70 percent of the EU population are fully vaccinated, just one-in-ten people in low-income countries have received even one dose.

But Europe's hands aren't completely tied. A solution has been proposed by India and South Africa that would see copyright on the vaccines suspended in order to ramp up the production and rollout of vaccines across the world.

The World Trade Organization's rules allow for a suspension of intellectual property rights in exceptional circumstances, and circumstances don't come any more exceptional than the these. "If not now, when?" as the director general of the WHO asked. Rather than being forced to pay up to $25.50 [€22.70] per jab, countries could produce their own for as little as $1.18.

When the so-called TRIPS-waiver was first tabled at the WTO, the EU was among the majority of the world's superpowers which wouldn't countenance getting on the wrong side of Big Pharma.

But that has changed over the last year, with the US, Canada, Australia, Japan and even Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil all persuaded to drop their opposition by scientists and campaigners including trade unionists.

It leaves Europe isolated in defending profits over people on the world stage.

Worryingly prescient

And this is where the analogy with Don't Look Up gets worryingly accurate. In the film, the president ignores the diplomatic efforts of international allies to find a common solution to the global threat they face, choosing instead to press ahead unilaterally with a plan devised by a corporate CEO.

The Omicron variant is latest proof of the dangers of that plan. It was first identified in South Africa, where just 27 percent are double-jabbed. The EU's response was to impose a travel ban on the country and its neighbours, but Europeans would have been much better protected had South Africa's request for a patent-waiver been approved and the country had higher levels of vaccination.

Of course, a patent waiver isn't a silver bullet. Europe should also be assisting developing countries in building their technological and industrial capacity to research, produce and distribute vaccines independently, while ensuring that the vaccines which are already being produced by Big Pharma are more evenly distributed.

But vaccines are simply not getting to the arms of people in the world's poorest countries, maintaining a breeding ground for mutations which prolong the pandemic. The essential workers who have risked their own lives to keep others safe throughout this pandemic cannot comprehend such a strategy.

Von der Leyen and her team would do well to watch Don't Look Up, which provides a timely warning about the dangers of putting profits before people's safety.

No spoilers, but it doesn't end well. It's time Europe stopped following the Big Pharma's script and remembered that "no one is safe until everyone is safe."

Author bio

Claes-Mikael Ståhl is deputy general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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