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Vaccines, viruses and global politics

US President Joe Biden announced recently that the United States was boosting exports of Covid vaccines. Great news. I guess this is because Joe and his government care deeply about the suffering of people in other countries and want to do their bit to help.

Oh, wait, no. He’s doing it to “reclaim American leadership” in the pandemic fight. Specifically, he wants to put Russia and China in their places because – as one news report puts it – “Moscow and Beijing have been taking advantage of the worldwide crisis to spread influence through distribution of their own national vaccines in a so-called ‘vaccine diplomacy’ contest”. That is a very disturbing remark which boils down to implying there might be something wrong with people in relatively rich countries – Russia and China – sharing effective vaccines that they have developed with people in poorer countries. And bear in mind that the biggest reason people in poorer countries are keen to get hold of vaccines from Russia or China is that some of the corporations that control supply in the United States and Europe are holding the poor countries to ransom. Pfizer, for example, reportedly demanded that Brazil and Argentina sign a blanket indemnity declaring the corporation would have no liability for harm, even if that harm was shown to be caused by clear negligence or even malicious behaviour by Pfizer or its agents. What national leader in their right minds would agree to that? Not only that, Pfizer wanted public buildings, military bases and other national assets put up as collateral to ensure it got paid. Tell me that isn’t disgusting.

US$26billion profit

Governments and private donors gave the big pharmaceutical corporations billions of dollars to kick-start research on Covid-19 vaccines. Surely they didn’t intend that these donations would be pocketed by the corporations which would also then pressure poor countries with “pay or suffer” demands. It’s good to know that the British-developed AstraZeneca vaccine is being sold at just a little over cost, with the makers saying they will worry about earning profits when the crisis is past. Pfizer, though, is predicting a profit of at least $US26billion this year from its Covid vaccine alone. I suppose it’s noteworthy that the 60million doses already pledged by the US are AstraZeneca . . .

Many poorer countries want the drug companies to accept a temporary waiver of their vaccine patents, enabling others to make them and potentially save many thousands of lives. Under heavy pressure, the Biden administration has said it agrees with the concept, but it can’t happen unless all 164 members of the World Trade Organisation also agree. Naturally the drug companies have pulled out all the stops to persuade as many governments as they can to stop this profit-shaving philanthropy in its tracks. Pfizer (of course) has written to Australia’s government, for example, explaining that waiving the patents temporarily won’t be a good idea. The Australian government (of course) seems to be on Pfizer’s side, so far. Along with illustrious pandemic predictor and World Health Organisation influencer Bill Gates, who is singing from the same song-sheet, arguing that it’s lack of factory capacity that is restricting vaccine supply, and that simply waiving patents won’t change a thing. I don’t believe him, do you?

Anway, are the Russian (Sputnik V) and Chinese (Sinovac) products as good as the Western corporate for-profit brands? It’s hard to tell, but after a period during which the US press and politicians poured scorn over them both, it seems the Russian product at least measures up very well. A study published in The Lancet medical journal boosted the credibility of the Sputnik product and prompted some governments of poorer countries to take the plunge, brushing aside pressure from the US, which has urged some to steer clear of the Russian and Chinese vaccines.

Russia’s Sputnik V

Meanwhile the issue of side-effects from the vaccines is receiving attention. It seems clear that rates of side-effects are very low, but may be serious in some rare cases. The risk of blood-clotting from the AstraZeneca vaccine has been highly publicised. Less discussed is the apparent risk of the heart condition myocarditis, seemingly linked to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and even less talked about is the possible link between the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and disruption to menstrual cycles. Both these possible side-effects have emerged in Israel, where most of the population has received two doses of the Pfizer product. Israel seems set to approve a single dose vaccination for younger people, since most of the myocarditis cases have occurred after the second injection.

And behind all the “vaccine diplomacy” and red-clawed profit-seeking remains that tortured question: where did the Covid-19 virus come from, and how did it get into humans? The furious finger-pointing at China hasn’t abated since Donald Trump kicked it off during his wild-ride presidency. Indeed, it’s probably moved up a notch now that the new cold war between the West and China has been more or less openly declared. So much is unclear, but it seems well-accepted that the virus came from bats, which came from a cave somewhere in China and might have been studied in a virus research lab in Wuhan. Now it is freely acknowledged that the USA had poured money into bat research in the Wuhan lab, and many are suggesting – despite firm denials – that some of the research may have been aimed at making the virus capable of infecting humans – not necessarily for any malicious purpose. Suddenly the expression “gain of function” in the context of virus research has gained popular currency. Put simply, “gain of function” research is research designed to give wild viruses new capabilities they didn’t have before. Some of those capabilities might make them more dangerous to humans.

“Gain of function”

Hundreds of scientists have called for brakes to be applied to potentially dangerous research that might create pandemic-causing viruses. But it’s evident that few can agree exactly where that line needs to be drawn, since nobody can predict with perfect accuracy which experiments might produce that result. This detailed article sums up the issue better than I can, and is worth a close read.

Mind you, it might be the case that some scientists in the field of microbiology and virology are just scaredy cats. Perhaps they have read all those articles on the internet about mysterious deaths of leading microbiologists. I’m not going to link to any: you only have to do a quick search to find a heap, along with all the conspiracy theory speculation suggesting that being involved in research that in any way touches on biological weapons – creating them or defending against them – can make you coincidentally dead. But just to keep things interesting, here is a recent one.

I guess Mr Gates is right. Pandemics are inevitable. That’s probably true whether or not scores of scientists across the globe are fiddling with germs to make them more infectious. It doesn’t seem like a great idea to me, all the same.

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