IS RACISM SHAPING THE GLOBAL VACCINE RESPONSE? – With Priti Krishtel, Tahir Amin and Asia Russell
By Elizabeth Njambi
We’re asking: is racism silently shaping the global vaccine response? And what could President Biden’s recent huge decision to take on vaccine monopolies mean for people around the world? We also do a special round of “big pharma bingo”, examining the key arguments that pharmaceutical corporations have been making that is stifling the mass production of Covid-19 vaccines.
Max and Nabil are joined by three giants from the access to medicines and public health movement: Priti Krishtel and Tahir Amin (the Co-Executive Directors of IMAK, which challenges systemic injustice and advocate for health equity in drug development and access), and Asia Russell (the CEO of HealthGAP, which is dedicated to ensuring that all people living with HIV have access to life-saving medicines).
Come to learn, to find inspiration, and to get the inside track on the vaccine issue.
More information about the people’s vaccine is at www.peoplesvaccine.org
This is the first episode season 4 of the EQUALS podcast. And if you’re joining us for the first time, tune in to our earlier interviews – from talking with the award-winning journalist Gary Younge on what we can learn from Martin Luther King Jr to fight inequality, to best-selling author Anand Giridharadas on whether we need billionaires, Zambian music artist PilAto on the power of music, thinker Ece Temelkuran on beating fascism, climate activist Hindou Ibrahim on nature, and the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva on what comes after the pandemic.
Do listen, subscribe/follow and leave a rating/review. Follow us on Twitter @EQUALSHope
INTERVIEW WITH PRITI KRISHTEL AND TAHIR AMIN
(Welcome and banter)
The Big US Decision
Max: So Priti, we’ve been working on this for over a year: really working on this issue of intellectual property and patents but we saw Joe Biden, just a week ago, make that announcement that he wants to support the suspension of Big Pharma intellectual property and monopolies on COVID-19 vaccines. Could you break that down for our listeners? How big a deal is that and what difference could it make?
Priti: I think it’s a big deal. We’ve been doing this work for a long time and we have never seen an American President say that intellectual property is something that can be touched (or) thought about differently. That the rights of corporations are not sacrosanct, even in the midst of a global pandemic. So, to have an American president actually acknowledge that, it is a very big deal. At the same time, I think we have to remember (that) all the Administration said last week is that they’re ready to have a conversation to support this waiver that India, South Africa and 100 countries have asked for. So, nothing has actually happened yet. Intellectual property hasn’t been waived. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to all of a sudden see a billion people vaccinated. We’re just at the beginning of a very long road.
Max: Yes, I think they’ve agreed to talk about talks, haven’t they? But it’s still an amazing thing. When you’re a campaigner it’s not often you see a clear-cut kind of victory like that. But it also does feel like it’s the beginning of a journey. Tahir, what has to happen next if we want to get from this commitment from Biden to billions more vaccines?
Tahir: Well, I think the text now is going to be essential. So, the statement that the US Administration put out just says … that they’re prepared to waive IP on vaccines only. You have to remember that the India-South Africa proposal talks about anything that can be related to COVID-19, whether it be Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), diagnostics (and) therapeutics. So, I think what we’re going to see is the original Sponsors, i.e. India, South Africa and all the other Sponsors, go back to the drawing board, send some revised text and then we’re just going to have this back-and-forth. I think it was the D.G. of the World Trade Organization (W.T.O.) that said she wants to get all this done by December (2021). We’re kind of hoping that it moves a lot more quicker than that.
The other thing that is really essential is that these agreements and negotiations are actually transparent because most/all trade deals are usually behind closed doors and we don’t know the finer details. It is important that we know what’s going on. I think this is going to be a negotiation and we’re already hearing that there’s immense pressure being put on Representatives in the US from Big Pharma so you can bet … that there’s going to be a lot of twists and turns between now and if there’s going to be any final text.
The possibility of it all
Max: I can imagine. As we’re already seeing in Europe – well, it was quite interesting. First of all it felt like dominoes and quite a few European leaders kind of starting to speak out in favour of Biden’s move… Their position is very much hardening in the other direction. What do you think about that? How can you see an agreement being reached at the WTO if the EU are really quite intransigent?
Tahir: I think there’s a bit of “Good Cop / Bad Cop” going on. I would be very surprised if this statement made by the US was done with the EU not knowing. I believe that they probably talked about this and there’s a bit of role-playing going on. I hope I’m wrong but if you look at past negotiations, … the industrial North is basically always in-sync when it comes to IP. There’s no way the US is going to do this and the (EU) not be aware of what’s going on. So, they’re going to just jostle and play roles and sort of try and weaken any of the broader aspects of the proposal and sort of play different roles just to get it the way they want it. That’s my sense of it.
Racial Justice and COVID Vaccine Access
Priti: … I’ll speak for activists here in the US. We are working in solidarity with human rights organizations all over the world to really let the Biden Administration know that global COVID vaccine access is a racial justice issue. This Administration has committed to racial justice. We’re trying to be very clear that that’s just not a domestic agenda. It has to be a global agenda.
Nabil: That’s really interesting Priti, and I do value the way that as we’ve gone through this journey that racial justice lens has been more and more part of the discourse. And what is very clear to see is that, we’re energized on this side in terms of access to medicines and making progress. I can only imagine the crisis meetings they had after the Biden decision; and probably the money they’ve pumped into this.
What I’d like to do with you guys is explore some of the arguments that Big Pharma are making right now in a very energetic way, both in the US but especially around the world. Max and I have made a list of the common arguments that Big Pharma make. I’m going to go into a bit of a “Big Pharma Bingo”. …
The Waiver vs. Incentives
Nabil: Priti, I’m going to start with you. This is a common one! You activists and Biden now, you are destroying incentives. This waiver is actually going to stop corporations from making vaccines, and even boosters across the line.
Priti: I think that’s rubbish. Vaccines are not a market that pharmaceutical companies are incentivised to enter. That’s why we’ve had a $100,000,000,000 in Government funding to create those incentives. IP has become a smokescreen that they hide behind to protect all of their earnings but in the end, we’ve socialised the risk and privatised the profit. So, the incentives are not actually gone.
Max: Brilliant! Tahir, now your turn. We’re paraphrasing a certain famous billionaire. He’s quite big in the health area! “It’s not like there’s some idle factory sitting around that magically makes safe vaccines. This is complicated.”
Tahir: (Jokingly) I wonder who that was.
Basically, there are like 40 or 41 … vaccine manufacturing and developing vaccine manufacturing network. They’re all part of the global South and they make over 3.5 billion doses worth of vaccines. Some of them are World Health Organization (WHO) pre-qualified. So, to say that there are no idle factories sitting around is either Bill’s gone a bit blind, or he’s got his favourites, which Serum is definitely one of them.
Having studied this area for other vaccines like HPV and pneumococcal, there are a lot of actors out there who could actually be doing a lot more in this situation and their capacity is not being used at all. Even companies in India who are not part of that network, could be doing more. There are companies that have got licenses for the Sputnik vaccine who are already sort of ramping up there.
The Waiver vs. Productivity
Nabil: Priti, this is one we’ve kind of heard from Dr. Fauci in the days in advance of the decision. The waiver is going to slow the world down from getting vaccines. We’re going to be going back-and-forth in these endless legal arguments about waivers. What would you say to that?
Priti: Let’s talk about the facts, okay? The fact of the matter is that pharma themselves have admitted that they’re only meeting 3% of their targets right now to getting vaccines to people worldwide. So, there is no possible way that we could be going slower than we are right now. The fact of the matter is, if you don’t have a waiver, where we lift all forms of intellectual property, the industry is going to tie us up, country by country, vaccine by vaccine, in litigation. We’ve seen that already with treatments and other forms of medical products in this pandemic. Look at Gilead. They sued Russia on Remdesivir. We have so many examples of where IP litigation has already started. So, let’s stay focused. IP is an obstruction in a moment like this.
The Waiver vs. Scientific Racism
Max: So, Tahir, “people are very serious about the safety of vaccines. The waiver leads to huge safety concerns for vaccine being made in the developing world”.
Tahir: Oh yeah, that sort of “scientific racism” as I call it. … I tweeted about this and I think that this is just a smokescreen that they’re putting up. Of course, everybody is worried about the safety of vaccines, but they said this on numerous occasions with the HIV drugs, when they said generics can’t produce them and they did. They’ve said that about Hepatitis-C drugs. I’m not saying that these small molecule drugs are the same as vaccines, but they even said that when Shantha Biotech … came up with their own version of the vaccine and used their own technology. These very companies were saying, “oh you won’t understand the technology. You can’t actually make them”. So, this is another game and another deflection just like all the deflections that they’ve said. It’s just classic pharma talking points.
Max: We were talking recently with this senior journalist and organizing an op-ed and he’s from one of these Right-Wing newspapers. He said, “they even made mistakes at the Johnson & Johnson factory in the US. How could they possibly make these things in developing countries?” The racism is not even subtle. I think it’s disgusting. It really makes me angry.
Nabil: It is (disgusting)! Just to go there with that question, now that we are done with the Big Pharma Bingo, you said there Tahir that there’s “scientific racism”. Can we just explore that? It did sound like brown and black people can’t be trusted to safely make vaccines. … Is that a fair thing that I’m putting there?
Priti: Yes, absolutely! You know this riles me up. If you take the case that Tahir was just talking about, about Shantha Biotech and the Hepatitis B vaccine, this is the same argument they advanced then. Today we are seeing over 100 million a year have been vaccinated because we’ve achieved more suppliers (and) more scale. Costs came down and more people could get immunized. Every single time, they point to safety because they know (that) in high-income countries, people will fall for that. I’ve heard in the last few days decision-makers and journalists admit to me that they heard that argument and they didn’t question it even for a second. They thought … it must be true that people in other parts of the world can’t make safe vaccines. I think we in the high-income countries, have to start questioning, what is it that makes us fall for that line of argument so quickly? It’s deeply problematic.
Nabil: Credit to Access to Medicines movement and a range of people who’ve … been quite vocal about this. … We easily call out dog-whistle-racism when it comes from Right-Wing politicians but there’s a sense that it’s a lot harder to do when it comes from industry.
Tahir: … The Wall Street Journal has been at the forefront of leading this charge of what I call “scientific racism”. Every other month they come out with some ridiculous point of view and talking point that it’s purely industry. It’s almost like they feel like their life is going to end because somebody else is going to make these vaccines. If you read all the Rudyard Kipling writings and all the old imperialist writings of the Europeans, it all smacks of all that. It is almost like the world has not moved on. … If you read your history and your fiction and literature, it just smells of all that stuff. It’s terrible and I’m surprised that we’re allowing all this to even pass.
Nabil: Taking a big step back, we started by talking about the Biden decision. About how unprecedented that is. … You’ve got skin in the game on access to medicines. You’ve worked around the world. You’ve worked relentlessly on this issue. … Do you have substantive hope for change to this industry? To pushing back against Big Pharma. …
Priti: Absolutely and I can also tell you… We are not going to rest over here in the US until we push our Administration to do right by the world. We are not going to stop until we make sure that every country has received an equitable allocation of vaccines.
Max: That’s great to hear. I think it’s going to be a fight, but I think we can win it.
Tahir: I think this is a long road, but I think what’s happened with COVID has opened a lot of windows and maybe even some doors and as Pritis says, we have to keep persevering. There’s going to be a lot of obstructions, but I think there are people who are now talking about patents and IP and these deeper structural systems, that had probably not talked about or heard about them before. Who would have thought that people are now talking about the WTO and the TRIPS agreement? The fact that that’s probably trending more than it ever has is something.
Max: We have a colleague Heidi who works for Global Justice Now and she said she’s never been more excited than when she saw “TRIPS waiver” trending on Twitter as an IP geek. In a way it feels like we’ve got a mountain to climb, but it does feel like we’ve really started.
Max and Nabil reflect on the interview with Priti and Tahir. For them,two things stood out: –
- The caution by which we view the Biden decision. We’ve still got a mountain to climb. There’s still a very fierce and maybe increasingly active Big Pharma lobby opposing us.
- Scientific racism: The idea that only rich white men in rich white countries are clever enough to make these complicated vaccines. It’s important we call that out.
They then take us into the interview with Asia Russell, to talk about how racism has shaped vaccine response more broadly.
INTERVIEW WITH ASIA RUSSELL
Nabil: … You have called out yourself this kind of deeply colonialist response at play by rich governments. Can you talk us through this? I’m really interested to understand, has racism shaped the way the world has dealt with COVID-19 vaccines?
Asia: It’s shaped the response at every step and that’s part of both the legacy of global public health but it’s (also) part of the here and now. It’s part of the most powerful Governments in the world, in particular, my Government, the US, exerting policy moves that determine whether the majority of the world’s population must be told to wait in line for essential treatments and vaccines and suffer and potentially die. When you look at who those communities are and where they come from, the vast majority are black and brown people.
The racialized outcomes in the US are catastrophic as well and they speak to one another and I guess the good news is, the U.S government has the power to take action today that can transform that horrific … legacy and reality right now of racism and colonial responses in public health shaping whether fundamentally people get to live or die.
I’m an AIDS activist and my organization Health Gap got started more than 20 years ago because analogous dichotomies along racial lines were playing out in terms of access to triple-combination life-saving antiretroviral therapy; and because of global solidarity, together we were able to put Big Pharma not only on its back foot, but to challenge the Governments that were enabling their profiteering and frankly deadly actions.
So, we know it can work. We also that that’s not enough. And that’s not surprising. This is a system of treatment and vaccine apartheid at its core that is not broken. It’s the system working. So, our task ahead is very formidable, but we are up for that challenge. The data in the US alone for example… indicates that more Americans agree that there should be and that there must be vaccines and treatments for all, … than who don’t. And that’s extraordinary. I think that speaks to the moment that we’re in. People are really outraged that this kind of inequity is making so many communities precarious, not only in the wealthiest countries where healthcare is not delivered as a right, but then much more so around the world where the vast majority virtually all of the global South has even yet to receive a first shot.
Max: You’re absolutely right. I think this is a historic moment. And it is amazing that the US government has probably for the first time ever, said that they want to look at the issue of waiving patents. In the centre of the decision is this woman called Ambassador Katherine Tai. She’s the US Trade Representative. She’s made this historic decision and you’ve met her, haven’t you? And lobbied her in the run-up to the decision. Did you see it coming? What was she like? What did you think at that point? Were you surprised when the decision was made?
Asia: I think it’s clear that pressure from activists really triggered a reversal of course by the Biden Administration, but the jury is out about what exactly it will translate into because there is a deep concern that the US is right now only supporting a watered down version of a suspension of … intellectual property rights. So, patents, but also trade secrets. Everything that’s bound up in the recipe that’s needed to make COVID-19 vaccines … and treatments. So, what’s happened is, the Biden Administration has taken a first wavering step. That’s nonetheless momentous and it’s a testament to the power of activism.
And you’re right. It’s Ambassador Tai who’s been a crucial actor. We met with her. It was very brief meeting, but Ambassador Tai clearly indicated that she recognized that a business-as-usual approach is not raising to meet the moment of catastrophe that the world is in. What’s quite important is, what she said to us that day, she also repeated during testimony publicly to the Senate Finance Committee and to the House Committee on Ways and Means. That was essentially that economies don’t work unless people are dead. Our global trading system which in the case of the Biden Administration she oversees … she was able to recognize that trade is based on people and that it has to be accountable to communities. And that if communities have no security because they have no health, then trade doesn’t work. And that to me is a step removed from the Obama Administration, the Clinton Administration and certainly from the Clinton Administration. So that’s one of the most important things. Maybe even more important than the substance of the waiver so far because there’s so much work left to do to ensure that that’s substance and not spin.
Nevertheless, she cannot step back from what she said, which is that intellectual property rights are obstructing access to the essential, life-saving public goods that humans need to recover from this preventable disaster of treatment and vaccine apartheid and to build for the next pandemic. And that’s where Big Pharma is most concerned. They are petrified that this is the first step towards a recovery from not just inequity for COVID-19, but also a break from this twisted system that puts profiteering and monopolies ahead of access for all.
Nabil: Really well said there, Asia. I can’t help but feel this strange feeling of hope in relation to what Ambassador Tai said, which frankly I’ve never felt with the US government. So, that is nice to hear but at the same time it does feel that our work is just beginning. …
People are going to be wondering listening to you, … what can I do to support this effort? And you are a leader in this space. What’s your advice to them? What can people do to help win a People’s Vaccine?
Asia: Well, first of all, if you’re not angry and you’re not dismayed then something is wrong. We don’t want you standing on the side-lines. We want you to join us because this is a global movement where as I mentioned, the numbers are on our side, but we need more power.
Global Health at its core is about not evidence, but power; and who has the power to speak and to demand what they require. And to act on their rights. And until we rebalance that imbalance, we won’t transform this problem.
So everyone listening, we need all hands on deck at this moment and so go to the People’s Vaccine materials online, it’s https://peoplesvaccine.org …That’s where you can tap into a global social movement built on intersectional, cross-cutting, social justice movements from the global North and South, and dial into what’s a ground-breaking effort to really confront and dismantle vaccine and treatment apartheid for COVID-19, but also to transform this system so it never happens again.
I would also encourage people to visit https://freethevaccine.org to find out more in particular about what comrades in the US are doing to hold the Biden Administration Accountable. You’re not alone. If you’re feeling dismayed or depressed by how terrifying the news is everyday about vaccine apartheid, you’re not alone. A huge vaccine for paralysis, is activism. So, we want you to join us. You are necessary for the success of this movement. With all hands on deck, we can move mountains together.
Elizabeth Njambi is the Producer of the EQUALS Podcast. She also manages the EQUALS Blog. Elizabeth is a Kenyan Advocate passionate about access to justice. She is the Founder and CEO of Wakili.sha Initiative and Co-host of the Wakili.sha Podcast.
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