Vidya Krishnan is a global health journalist working and living in India. She is the author of “Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped our History”.
In his 1947 novel The Plague, Albert Camus wrote that all a man can win in the conflict between plague and life is knowledge and memories.
From syphilis and tuberculosis to COVID-19, our collective knowledge and memories have taught us that laws become the vehicle of injustice. Regardless of the type of plague or the time in history, we know that patients are reliably divided along a predictable architecture of inequality, with race playing a huge role in who survives and who dies.
In this latest scourge, the controversial law that has brought the North and South of the world to the fore concerns the regulation of intellectual property (IP) on vaccines, in which former German Chancellor Angela Merkel played an important role. As we move towards yet another preventable wave of a preventable infectious disease, her stance on an IP waiver for COVID-19 vaccines will be one of her defining legacies of her as a world leader.
In 2021, when she left office after sixteen years, Merkel was praised for leading Europe with a steady hand during a difficult time, for invoking Christianity and welcoming one million refugees to Germany, and for putting forward the science to politics, unlike many leaders.
Theoretical quantum chemistry training, has received praise for bringing “compassion and insistence – unusual among politicians, even in the days of COVID-19 – that decision making benefits from evidence” and has been called a “difficult act to to follow”. After former US President Donald Trump was elected, the New York Times even saw fit to give her the title of “Leader of the Free World”.
But Merkel’s stance on giving up vaccines on the commercial aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) was acid proof of her commitment to human rights and social justice. And going into the third year of a pandemic that claimed over 15 million lives, it’s questionable whether it deserves this title.
The first vaccine against COVID-19 was approved in December 2020. And even before that, experts in India and South Africa had proposed an exemption from TRIPS. Yet, three years after the pandemic began, with over 12 vaccines approved and about 150 more in the pipeline, nearly 3 billion people are still waiting for their first doses.
Nearly 14.91 million died in the 24 months between January 2020 and December 2021, the majority of deaths occurring in 20 black and brown nations. The highest death toll has occurred in India, despite being the world’s pharmacy. And herein lies the problem.
This month marks a year since India’s traumatizing second wave in which, according to conservative estimates, 2.7 million people have died over a four-month period. The numbers are staggering and the losses inconceivable, especially considering that Indian pharmaceutical companies have produced vaccines against COVID-19 at a fraction of the cost to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVAX facility.
The decision to tie vaccines to patent monopolies and centralize production has left the burden of vaccinating the rest of the world on Indian companies. But during the second wave, India had to stop vaccine exports to more than 90 developing countries, sending the response to the pandemic haywire.
Now, globally, we are seeing parallel pandemics.
The waiver proposal is now supported by more than 100 nations, including the United States, more than 140 former heads of state, Nobel laureates and the Pope, all of whom have called on Germany to support the renunciation of intellectual property rights in vaccines. COVID-19 and transferring vaccine technologies.
With Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union Party at the forefront, Germany has consistently advocated IP as an engine for innovation and, therefore, for monopolies as an unassailable right of the country’s burgeoning pharmaceutical industry, holding the right to health. in the midst of a once-violable pandemic in a century.
Despite “unconstrained” taxpayer investments in vaccine development – Germany awarded $ 445 million to BioNTech and $ 298 million to CureVac – the Berlin government has firmly advocated keeping them in patent monopolies. BioNTech alone raised over € 5.3 billion between April and June 2021 and estimates annual sales of € 15.9 billion this year.
While arguing that intellectual property is not an obstacle to increasing global manufacturing, Germany changed its patent laws at the start of the pandemic, giving more powers to its Federal Ministry of Health.
By May 2021, while the WE. and New Zealand had come to support the TRIPS exemption, Germany responded by suggesting industry-controlled and industry-led solutions such as donations, allowing a deadly status quo to persist. The European Union’s counter-proposal to the derogation was noted by the medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders as a ploy “to delay and distract from continuing the TRIPS derogation”. And even patent attorneys in India and South Africa believe this was a deliberate attempt to delay the negotiation by allowing pharmaceutical companies to slowly increase production capacity on a large scale, thus negating the need for a waiver altogether. patent.
In June 2021, months after the COVID-19 pandemic and weeks before the G7 summit, all eyes were on Germany’s outgoing leader. Merkel got “in the way,” Human Rights Watch said, referring to a waiver of intellectual property on COVID-19 technologies, making it harder for the world’s poor, mainly black and brown nations, to gain access to vaccines.
Overall, the EU, the UK and Switzerland, along with a group of other fence supporters, including the US, have blocked significant progress to end the pandemic in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. For 20 months, among bystanders and opponents, global health leaders and institutions, all based in the global North, quietly negotiated terms for a two-year waiver of TRIPS as the death toll soared.
This week, the stalemate reached its peak when, finally, a compromise agreement was reached on a waiver at the World Trade Organization. The deal, on paper, leaves room for governments to force drug companies to share their vaccine recipes for the next five years, but realistically, low- and middle-income countries have been unsuccessful in convincing Big Pharma, not to talk about a five year period. It also fails to meet India and South Africa’s request to exempt all COVID treatments and diagnostics.
But activists were disappointed with the result. “It’s hard to imagine anything less beneficial than this as a response to a massive global health emergency,” said James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International.
For those of us in the global South, our knowledge and memories teach us that power does not negotiate, compromise or extend flexibilities. It also teaches us that one must not work with great malice to inflict damage. Refusal to act urgently and with empathy does its job.
At the time of India’s second deadly wave, only 4% of the population had been vaccinated because the country supplied WHO instead, having provided approximately 66 million doses of the vaccine to 95 countries. Over a four-month period, millions of Indians were engulfed by the plague, and after all the screaming and crying subsided, this is what we remember: vaccines were available and India was producing them for the world, as millions of us are dead.
From the perspective of India – and the postcolonial nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America – Merkel appears to be a deeply flawed leader and one who has made a powerful contribution to leaving the vulnerable unprotected.
This is the moral crime of our generation, not too different from denying the ointment to African American sharecroppers enrolled in the Tuskegee syphilis study, repeated again in the 1990s during the HIV epidemic when African nations, the epicenter of the crisis, were the last to receive antiretrovirals.
The decisions of Western powers, particularly Germany, which had the flu to break the vaccine deadlock, have inflicted untold misery on black and brown nations.
This is Merkel’s lasting legacy.