People over profits: Make COVID-19 medicines and vaccines free and fair for all

Injection being prepared by a care giver as the recipient roles up his sleeve

The cost to develop and distribute a vaccine could be covered by the profit earned by the world’s top 10 pharmaceutical companies — in just four months. Photo: iStock

Blog by Robert Silverman and Nicholas Lusiani, Oxfam America
Published: 15th June 2020

The Coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on all our lives. While we are each doing our part of prevent the spread, and while frontline healthcare workers risk their lives to care for the sick, researchers are racing to find the one thing that will protect all of us in the long run: a vaccine.

Big Pharma — long-blasted for gouging prices, avoiding taxes, and rigging the political process to maximize profits — has emerged as key players in the race to bring an end to the COVID-19 crisis. Who gets access to lifesaving medicines and vaccines — and when — will determine who lives and who dies.

Governments around the world — especially wealthier countries home to top pharma companies — have a duty to do everything they possibly can to ensure that any successful medicines or vaccines are made available to all, especially those most in need, now and in the future. Government leadership is central to making COVID-19 vaccines and medicines a global public good. Yet, it’s on pharmaceutical companies to play their part. Many are working to develop these lifesaving innovations and have made some important overtures toward the goal of affordable and fair access to all.

This life-saving work must continue, but we cannot allow Big Pharma to further exacerbate the inequality crisis that COVID-19 has laid bare. This pandemic feeds on inequality, killing the poor and the historically disadvantaged at higher rates than the rich and privileged.

Big Pharma’s “business as usual” model is to make billions off taxpayer-funded research, charge sky-high prices, and funnel profits to wealthy investors. In the midst of a pandemic, that would mean luxury for the few and disaster for the many.

Our response to the virus must break this cycle of inequality. To prevent the COVID pandemic from becoming an inequality pandemic, any medicines or vaccines that pharmaceutical companies develop must be made free to all, and they must be fairly and equitably available to all those people most in need throughout the world.

The people's vaccine. Available to all, in all countries, free of charge.

Human rights, not property rights

More than 170 world leaders — including the heads of state of South Africa, Pakistan, Senegal, and Ghana — have issued a call for a “people’s vaccine in the run-up to the World Health Assembly this week. They demand that all COVID vaccines, treatments and tests be patent-free, mass produced, distributed fairly and made available to all people, in all countries, free of charge.

Meanwhile, Oxfam has calculated that the cost to develop and distribute a vaccine — $25 billion, according to the Gates Foundation — could be covered by the profit earned by the world’s top 10 pharmaceutical companies — in just four months.

We must take steps now to prevent private companies from charging prices that would block most of humanity from accessing life-saving medicines, and we must ensure that low and middle-income countries do not end up at the back of the line for drugs developed by corporations headquartered in the Global North.

Don’t exclude women and girls

When essential services — like education and health-care — are too expensive, research shows households often prioritize the needs of male family members. If COVID-19 medicines or vaccines are rationed, rather than widely available, we know who will lose out — women and girls.

It’s no secret that women are the real heroes of sustaining our public health infrastructure. Women make up 70% of healthcare workers and the grand majority of those caring for infected loved ones recovering at home. We must prioritize their access to tests, treatments, and vaccines to ensure that everyone gets the care they need.

Injection being given

Break the COVID monopoly

While some non-pharma companies have committed to the “Open COVID Pledge” to share patents and intellectual property during the pandemic, the most profitable pharma companies continue to insist on retaining monopoly control over their vaccines and medicines.

Monopoly control could prevent countries and other companies from collaborating to massively scale up production worldwide to meet demand. Johnson and Johnson for example, can by its own estimates only supply its COVID-19 vaccine to a small fraction of the world’s population by the end of 2021.

If the goal is mass production of safe and effective vaccines, we need as many factories producing as fast as possible — without the need to ask for permission from large pharmaceutical corporations.

No time for me-first nationalism

Once vaccines or treatments are developed, there is a high risk that rich people and rich governments will outbid poorer people and poorer nations, forcing their way to the front of the queue as they did in the scramble for other essential medical supplies such as tests, personal protective equipment and oxygen.

Rather than prioritizing those most in need, some companies seem to be prioritizing specific countries and people. Gilead seems so far to have literally put America First by allocating much of the current supply of its COVID drug to the Trump administration. Sanofi found itself in the middle of a firestorm after prioritizing American investors over the global public good.

Despite the fact that 78% of Americans say that the US government should regulate the price of Covid-19 treatments, and 53% say that drug companies shouldn’t make profits at all from Covid-19 therapies, the Trump Administration seems intent on denying the public will by using his negotiating power to protect private companies’ patent rights and to reject international efforts to ensure fair distribution of a new vaccine — a move which would benefit pharmaceutical companies at the expense of public health. This will only drive the death toll higher and may sow the seeds for even wider spread.

We cannot allow short-sighted nationalist rhetoric to divide us. Companies should join world leaders, who have called for a globally agreed, equitable distribution plan with a locked-in fairness formula so that supply is based on need, not how much money you have or where you were born.

In this unprecedented crisis, we must ensure that people are put before profits, human rights held above property rights and the global good put above national interest.

Oxfam is calling on world leaders for a commitment to guarantee now that the vaccine will be free and fairly distributed to everyone on this planet who needs it.