Monday

28th Nov 2022

Opinion

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)
Listen to article

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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).

Disclaimer

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

Pressure builds on EU to back WTO vaccine-patent waiver

MEPs have backed a motion demanding the temporality lifting of intellectual properties rights of Covid-19 vaccines - a symbolic move that puts pressure on the European Commission to change its position on the issue of global access to vaccines.

EU counters Biden's vaccine patent-waiver with WTO plan

The EU has submitted to the World Trade Organization a plan aimed at expanding the production of Covid-19 vaccines - seen by Brussels as a quicker and more targeted solution than the intellectual property right-waiver proposal backed by the US.

The EU Parliament Covid inquiry: the questions MEPs must ask

A basic lack of transparency around the EU's vaccines procurement negotiations has prevented effective public and parliamentary scrutiny. It has also made it impossible to answer some of the key questions we put forward here.

Never waste a crisis - so start building Covid research in Africa

Botswana was the first country able to detect the emergence of the Omicron variant, thanks to its sequencing capacities. Eleven infectious disease experts from Africa and Europe call for developing research networks across the African continent to respond future pandemics.

News in Brief

  1. 'Pro-Kremlin group' in EU Parliament cyberattack
  2. Ukraine will decide on any peace talks, Borrell says
  3. Germany blocks sale of chip factory to Chinese subsidiary
  4. Strikes and protests over cost-of-living grip Greece, Belgium
  5. Liberal MEPs want Musk quizzed in parliament
  6. Bulgarian policeman shot dead at Turkish border
  7. 89 people allowed to disembark in Italy, aid group says
  8. UN chief tells world: Cooperate on climate or perish

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  3. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  4. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  5. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  6. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos

Latest News

  1. Legal scholars: Prosecuting Putin 'legally problematic'
  2. A missed opportunity in Kazakhstan
  3. EU's Hungary funds, China, energy, and Frontex This WEEK
  4. Sweden says 'no' to EU asylum relocation pledges
  5. The 'proof' problem with EU sanctions — and how to fix it
  6. The EU gas cap: will the bottle ever be 'uncorked'?
  7. Enough talk, only rights can eliminate patriarchal violence
  8. Swedish EU presidency: 'Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine'

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022
  2. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  4. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  6. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us