(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

OPINIONSocietyMay 31, 2020

Why New Zealand must join the global call for a people’s vaccine

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

Like other pharmaceutical products, a potential Covid-19 vaccine is at risk of being controlled by corporate interests. New Zealanders should join the call for a vaccine that’s free for everyone, writes Jo Spratt of Oxfam.

As we celebrate a long weekend and head further away from the restrictions of strict lockdown, many of us will be feeling thankful to be living in Aotearoa. 

Five months into the global pandemic, the global infection rate has gone past 5.64 million and the collective recorded death toll is now more than 353,000. Worldwide, governments’ efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus have ranged from resolute to disturbingly chaotic. 

Since March, when lockdown was first imposed in New Zealand, hundreds of New Zealand businesses have collapsed and thousands of jobs have been lost. Twenty-one people have died. The complications and pain of recovery may mostly lie ahead of us. But as each day passes and our health officials have no new cases of infection to report, we can take some comfort that thanks to timely leadership, and by working together, we’ve earned ourselves a bit of a breather.

What we can’t be is complacent. Borders can’t stay closed indefinitely. The virus is highly contagious. In New Zealand, as elsewhere, we will need a vaccine to be protected. And ultimately, pretty much every person on the planet needs to get the jab as well.  

On May 18, while many in New Zealand were still raking over the budget leaves, Ashley Bloomfield and other health leaders met virtually for the World Health Assembly. There were high hopes for the meeting’s outcome but it was derailed by what some commentators described as a Trump administration seeking scapegoats for a pandemic it had mishandled from the start.

The resulting World Health Assembly decision on access to vaccines, treatments and tests for the coronavirus supports the use of existing global trade rules to override corporate patent rights in the interest of public health, and tasks the World Health Organisation to come up with options for scaling up global manufacturing and distribution capacity for vaccines, tests and treatments. But despite acknowledging that vaccines, treatments and tests are global public goods, there is no requirement for pharmaceutical corporations to pool their patents – a process that would enable anyone with the means to manufacture or import affordable copies. There is also no guarantee that vaccines, treatments and tests will be made available to individuals free of charge.  

As Anna Marriott, health policy manager at Oxfam International, put it: “The resolution agreed at the World Health Assembly leaves too many barriers standing in the way of a vaccine for all. A people’s vaccine must be patent-free, mass produced, distributed fairly, and made available, free of charge, to every individual, rich and poor alike. World leaders must commit to putting public health before the profits of the pharmaceutical industry.”

The lacklustre outcome from world health leaders reveals the work still to be done in securing what people everywhere need – a free vaccine that is fairly distributed to every person, in every country. 

Elsewhere, however, the call for an affordable and accessible vaccine is gaining momentum.

In the days just before the World Health Assembly, more than 150 world leaders, economists and health experts signed an open letter calling on all governments to unite behind a people’s vaccine against Covid-19. Signatories included the presidents of South Africa, Senegal and Ghana as well as the prime minister of Pakistan and New Zealand’s own former prime minister Helen Clark. 

Clark was credited with championing the cause, using her strong international connections to encourage a number of significant leaders to sign on in support. As she told Carl Zimmer, a science columnist with The New York Times, “These vaccines have to be a public good. We’re not safe till everyone is safe”.

In New Zealand, there’s another reason why all New Zealanders need to sign this global petition to ensure everyone has the chance to receive the vaccine.

New Zealand may have joined many countries and companies in the global race to develop an effective Covid-19 vaccine. But of the $37m funding, launched by the government this week, $10m will go to domestic research. This is small compared to what wealthier countries and pharmaceutical companies are throwing at the challenge. If and when a vaccine is developed, experts suggest New Zealand stands a high chance of being one of the last in line. If distribution of the vaccine is left to market forces, New Zealand would not have the scale or purchasing power to compete with countries such as America, Germany, China or even Australia. We may be left waiting.

However, we of course know that Covid-19 won’t wait and the situation is incredibly urgent. And if the prospect of not being able to access a vaccine for ourselves and our families is a scary thought for us here in New Zealand, imagine what it would be like for a mother or father living in a crowded squatter settlement on the outskirts of Port Moresby, or in one of the world’s crowded refugee camps. 

At this moment, almost a million people are seriously at risk in refugee camps like Cox’s Bazaar in southern Bangladesh. The first cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in mid-May in this crowded camp, where more than one million people have settled. In this camp around 250 people are sharing just one tap and have living space that is less than 3.5 metres per person. It’s hard to imagine the plight of the people in such camps who have been forced to flee their homes, who have already suffered so much hardship, and who are simply not set up to cope with a pandemic like coronavirus. 

New Zealand, along with other small nations, has an opportunity to put pressure on governments and pharmaceutical companies to ensure a Covid-19 vaccine that is available for everyone. Now is the moment for us all to join the worldwide call for a people’s vaccine.

Dr Jo Spratt is the advocacy and campaigns director at Oxfam New Zealand.

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