The EU is Praised for Vaccine “Donations.” Behind Closed Doors, It Quietly Blocks Poor Countries' Efforts to Increase Vaccine Manufacturing.

The West's "charity" double game on vaccines is about domestic PR and maintaining control over public health policy in the global south.

On September 14, the European Union went to the World Trade Organization and rejected a proposal from the Global South to suspend patent rules for the Covid vaccine. The next day, September 15, the EU announced it is donating 200 million vaccine doses to poor countries. The juxtaposition of these two developments—the first shrouded in secrecy, and the second widely lauded in the press—is worth examining: It reveals how public acts of “charity” on the part of rich, Western countries can actually do harm, by eroding bonds of solidarity and providing cover for the largely unseen—and deliberately complex and opaque—WTO process of protecting intellectual property enforcement regimes for Big Pharma, at the expense of sharing vaccine recipes and know-how with poor countries. 

First, it’s important to understand the proposal the EU is rejecting. Put forward by India and South Africa in October 2020, the measure would greenlight wider production of vaccines in order to get cheaper, generic versions to poor countries. The logic is written out in the proposal itself: “Given this present context of global emergency, it is important for WTO Members to work together to ensure that intellectual property rights such as patents, industrial designs, copyright and protection of undisclosed information do not create barriers to the timely access to affordable medical products.” The measure has the support of more than 100 countries, with the Global South heavily represented among them, along with 100 Nobel laureates and prominent human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and OxFam. “If approved, the decision could signal a major turning point in countries’ response to the pandemic and truly put people’s needs before pharmaceutical companies’ profits,” the medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders says.

It is difficult to overstate the urgency of such a proposal: The current system—in which private, for-profit pharmaceutical companies are largely determining who gets the vaccine, and wealthy, powerful countries have more leverage in negotiating supply—is dramatically failing. The 29 poorest countries in the world account for 9% of the global population but have received only 0.3% of vaccine doses, and the vaccine isn’t expected to reach the most low-income parts of the world until 2023. “Global vaccine apartheid” isn’t some theoretical future danger. It is the most accurate way to describe a situation where the U.S. is debating booster shots while only 3.27% of the entire continent of Africa has been fully vaccinated. Giving countries the information they need to produce the vaccines themselves should be the floor: Wealthy countries also need to redistribute resources, pursue mass manufacturing for the purpose of vaccinating the whole world, and compel companies to share vaccines. The benefit of the India-South Africa proposal is that it’s straightforward—it merely requires stopping the harm of hoarding life-saving information, the policy equivalent of removing a boot from someone’s neck.

It’s been nearly a year since the proposal was introduced—a time span that has seen millions of deaths and uncontrolled spread lead to terrifying new variants. Those of us who follow the WTO effort were waiting anxiously to see what would happen at the September 14 meeting, which  was described as an informal meeting of the TRIPS Council (the WTO body that oversees intellectual property rules). The Biden administration announced on May 5 that it would support a patent waiver of some kind (although the specifics of this support were a bit vague), and global activists were desperately hoping for progress.

Unfortunately, the meeting only brought more blockage and delays—which will almost certainly lead to more deaths. The event was closed to the press, but I obtained a summary of its proceedings that was drafted by Geneva-based trade diplomats and passed along to me (I reported on U.S. foot-dragging for In These Times, but I am including new quotes here.) The document states that the India-South Africa proposal “faces resistance especially from some high income economies that have sought to delay and distract from the proposal. In particular, the European Commission, the official representative of the European Union in the WTO, is opposed to the TRIPS waiver.” The EU is not the only country blocking the proposal: The United Kingdom and Switzerland are also opposed, and the U.S. is holding up progress by declining to agree to the proposal as it currently stands, and by being vague about how to move forward. But the EU, far and away, is the biggest obstacle in the world to the proposal passing, or even being negotiated on. This is why, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the de facto leader of the EU, visited the United States in July, she was met with protesters who demanded she support the patent waiver.

The EU’s position at the September 14 WTO meeting—or anyone’s position, for that matter—was not widely broadcast in the U.S. press (although Doctors Without Borders did give leaders a good skewering). There is one legitimate contributing reason—the WTO meeting was closed off to the media. However, the EU’s position against the waiver was well-known ahead of the meeting, and a curious press could have peppered EU leaders with questions, or noted the importance of the meeting for a world still in the grips of a pandemic, or simply pointed out that reporters were being locked out of these critical proceedings. 

But one day after the WTO meeting, the EU received glowing headlines for a vaccine policy of a different kind. “EU pledges 200 million vaccine doses to low-income nations,” proclaimed the Associated Press. “Basking in Vaccine Success, E.U. Promises to Donate More Covid Shots,” read a New York Times headline. “Von der Leyen: EU will donate 200M more coronavirus vaccines,” read Politico’s headline. None of those pieces mentioned that, just one day before, the EU had blocked a proposal aimed at getting vaccines to the Global South.

It’s important to note some important caveats about these donations. The deliveries will ostensibly be made sometime in the middle of 2022, light years away given the devastation of the Covid pandemic. Furthermore, there’s reason to be skeptical that the doses will be delivered as promised. As of early August, the EU had only donated 7.9 million of the 200 million doses it previously promised to the world. But even if the EU does what it says and donates an additional 200 million doses by mid-2022, this is still far short of global need, and far too much of a delay to meet the crisis that is happening now. Due to failures of the COVAX vaccine distribution program, Africa will receive a quarter fewer vaccine doses than it had expected by the end of 2021, but the delta variant is wreaking havoc across the continent now.

The EU is not the only party engaged in this kind of behavior. U.S. foot dragging at the WTO, combined with its utter failure to meaningfully share resources or manufacturing power, has also been accompanied by similar public announcements about vaccine distribution. But what makes the EU example so telling is the utter brazenness of going straight from the WTO meeting to a public pronouncement of one’s charitable giving. Because, ultimately, EU leaders are revealing that they prefer (meager) charity to giving poor countries the resources and information they need to produce the vaccine themselves. God forbid their former colonial subjects attain the ability to jeopardize the profits of the pharmaceutical companies the EU heavily subsidizes.

These self-congratulatory announcements of vaccine donations are important not just because they cover up great misdeeds during this pandemic, but because they are setting a terrible precedent for the future. The hoarding of intellectual property does not just hamper our ability to curb the pandemic: It also harms our ability to curb the AIDS crisis, to save lives from diabetes, to prevent numerous other preventable deaths, and to protect against future outbreaks. The EU wants the story that’s told of the pandemic to be one of charity and compassion on the part of rich nations. It doesn’t want the narrative to focus on what it did behind closed doors at WTO meetings, where Global South leaders pleaded for the lives of their people, and were turned away.