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The world’s biggest Covid-19 mistake

July 12, 2021

Opinion by Greg Ray

In times to come, I believe, the courtroom of history may hand down the verdict that the world’s biggest mistake when confronted by the Covid-19 pandemic was the decision of rich nations and pharmaceutical companies not to share their vaccines and patents quickly and freely with poor countries. Not just for ethical reasons, but for pragmatic ones too.

The pragmatic reason is that large populations of people, exposed to an entirely new virus, create perfect conditions for that virus to mutate. As Charles Darwin would have told you, most of the mutations won’t prove helpful to the virus and will disappear without humans ever knowing they existed. But a few will make the virus spread faster, or make it more dangerous to people or make it immune against the vaccines that previously worked against earlier versions of the virus. Students of virology know all about mutations. That’s why governments fund research into viruses that live in other species (including bats) and why some of them fund “gain of function” studies to determine exactly how certain viruses might jump to humans and cause serious illness.

So while governments in rich countries might think it doesn’t matter what happens in poor countries, so long as they get their own populations vaccinated, the truth may be quite different. During the Covid-19 pandemic we have already seen mutant strains of the virus arise in various parts of the world then – thanks to the interconnectedness of the global human community – spread rapidly into populations that had previously encountered earlier viral strains. Hence the second and third waves of the pandemic, and hence the advent of the Delta variant now creating such fear around the world. This variant is better at spreading. Remember our first encounter with the virus, when some members of a household into which the virus came might manage to remain uninfected? Not true with Delta. If one gets sick, everybody in the household gets sick. And it’s so much easier to spread outside the home too, which is why the diligent contact-tracers of NSW are now facing such an uphill battle to keep track of the latest outbreak. They are days behind the game, which means potentially large numbers of infected people who still have no idea they have caught the virus. Equally worrying, on recent figures it seems that about 10 per cent of infected people require hospital care, raising the familiar question about whether the state’s intensive care system will be able to cope.

Back in March this year many experts warned that the rich world was making a huge mistake in not working overtime to get poor countries access to vaccines. Dozens of epidemiologists around the world explained that, without a truly gigantic global effort to vaccinate people in the poorest countries, it is only a matter of time before a mutant strain emerges that will make the first-generation vaccines useless. And it might not take long. A year, at most, some suggest. Already, drug companies are working on research for “booster” shots to help address some of the emergent strains of virus, and that is obviously important. But it’s surely more important to get many more doses of vaccine made and administered in every part of the world.

The main reason this isn’t happening, it seems, is that the vaccine-making corporations are unhappy about receiving lower profits. They shouldn’t worry. There is no way they can fail to be richly rewarded for their efforts, and deservedly so. But it isn’t reasonable, ethical, or ultimately practical to withhold vaccines from poor countries in the pursuit of every last possible dollar of profit. That’s a strategy that is killing people now, and will kill a lot more soon, including – more than likely – people in rich countries who thought they had made themselves safe.

Poor countries are begging for the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights, arguing persuasively that this is the only way to achieve fairness in vaccine distribution and, ultimately, to protect all of us as well as possible. Only the drug companies and a small group of rich-world governments are arguing against them.

The pharmaceutical companies holding the world to ransom say the real constraint is lack of factories and expertise and that even if they opened their patents to others the supply of vaccines wouldn’t increase. There is a lot of evidence that this is not true. Corporations act in their own best interests. That is what we expect them to do. But often that means they act contrary to the interests of ordinary people and the human race in general. This is a glaring instance of the most disastrous kind.

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