We're Living With the Consequences of Rich Nations' Vaccine Hoarding
The Biden administration has finally backed a patent waiver for Covid vaccines, but it’s already too late for Argentina and countless countries across the Global South.
OLAVARRÍA — Dr. Valentina Tancredi recalls the precise moment she realized the most recent wave of the coronavirus in Argentina had become a tsunami, engulfing Buenos Aires Province.
“I remember one afternoon a couple of weeks ago when the emergency room was completely overflowing,” Tancredi says. “My colleagues were attending patients as they arrived, and one after another was gasping for air.”
Tancredi works in the intensive care unit of the Dr. Héctor M. Cura Municipal Hospital in Olavarría, about 200 miles southwest of Buenos Aires. By early April, all of the ICU’s 20 beds were occupied, primarily with patients diagnosed with Covid.
The new outbreak in Argentina is among the worst in the world. Between March 21 and April 24, the country’s 7-day rolling average of new positive cases leapt from 7,150 to just over 24,000 — an all-time high — as daily deaths more than doubled, from 125 to 330.
According to Our World in Data—a website affiliated with the University of Oxford that tracks vaccinations by country and continent — 13.6% of Argentina’s population had received at least one dose of a vaccine as of April 24, but just 1.9% of the population was fully vaccinated. In South America as a whole, 15.9 doses per 100 people had been administered. In the United States, that number was 67.5.
On April 26, President Biden pledged to donate 60 million AstraZeneca doses to countries in need once the Federal Drug Administration completes its safety review. (When this review will be complete is unknown as of press time.) But promised future donations are not enough.
“One of the reasons that vaccination is so unfair across the world right now is not simply the failure of a fair distribution mechanism, although that’s part of it,” says Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, a social justice organization in the U.K. “It’s actually that we have artificially limited the supply of vaccines that we’re able to make.”
This limitation stems from intellectual property rights that keep countries from manufacturing their own vaccine supply. As humanitarian organizations have pointed out, convincing Big Pharma to directly share its medical tools and technologies in the Global South by suspending these patent rights would do far more.
These are not the only barriers to global vaccine access the United States has helped create. In August 2020, Argentine President Alberto Fernández announced that his country and Mexico had secured financing to purchase the rights to co-manufacture the AstraZeneca vaccine. But Mexico struggled to secure the filters needed to complete the vaccine doses, in part because Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden each authorized the Defense Production Act, implementing restrictions on medical exports.
While Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard has refused to single out any one country, laying the blame on AstraZeneca, the production delays prevented an unknown number of vaccines from being distributed ahead of this latest surge. These delays underscore the extent to which countries like Mexico and Argentina have been at the mercy of the pharmaceutical industry and wealthy nations alike.
“Even at this time last year, we could see the coming train wreck of global vaccine inequity,” Nicholas Lusiani, a senior advisor at Oxfam America, tells In These Times. “If the vaccines had been made from the very beginning a global public good, with pooling of the technology and freedom from intellectual property protections, countries like Argentina could have been upscaling the supply to meet demand.”
Under pressure, the Biden administration finally announced on May 5 that it would support a waiver on intellectual property rights to increase the production of Covid vaccines worldwide. As United States Trade Rep. Katherine Tai put it, “This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.”
Keeping vaccine-related patents and technologies private has already had deadly consequences, and the repercussions may be long-term. Although multiple vaccines have proved effective against the coronavirus variants that originated in South Africa, Brazil and Britain (and have since spread across the globe), there is no guarantee they will protect us from future mutations — a scenario that becomes more likely as populations take longer to be vaccinated.
“The only way to stop this [virus] is through mass vaccinations,” says Dr. Vanina Stanek, a specialist in infectious diseases at Hospital Italiano in Buenos Aires. “I think the countries with the largest purchasing power have a certain moral obligation, but whether you look at it as an act of solidarity or not, [vaccinating the planet] is the best strategy.”
For doctors on the frontlines like Tancredi, these acts of international solidarity are cold comfort. Despite restrictions implemented by the Argentinian government to flatten the curve, Tancredi has watched the hallways of her hospital swell with new patients. If this surge continues, she and her colleagues may be stretched too thin to provide potentially life-saving assistance.
“We haven’t yet had a situation where we were unable to offer intubation to somebody who needs it, but it’s a near possibility if we can’t vaccinate more people or [reduce mobility],” Tancredi says. “It’s a constant fear and anxiety.”
Jacob Sugarman is a freelance writer based in Buenos Aires. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Jacobin and Salon, among other publications.