It’s back to the drawing board on Covid-19
Western people 14.12.2021
With COVID-19, as the Barbara Streisand song has it, ‘There are lessons to be learned’. The demon of self-centredness that mocks our moral pretensions has taught us yet another lesson.
When it came to accessing the welcome vaccine – the perceived solution to COVID – most of us couldn’t wait to get it. More measured voices warned us (i) that COVID was a world-wide phenomenon; (ii) that while the virus had purchase anywhere in the world it would mutate into a series of variants; and (iii) that no one would be safe until everyone was safe.
But we knew better.
As the vaccines arrived, one after another, there were discussions in pubs on the relative merits of the Pfizer rather than the Moderna or perhaps the Jansen or maybe the AstraZeneca. We became fireside experts on ‘the science’, even sometimes demanding a reference for a specific brand.
Yet we missed the more obvious truth that, as the numbers vaccinated increased towards 90% of the adult population (and we rightly congratulated ourselves on that extraordinary achievement) worryingly the numbers jabbed in Africa were in single percentage figures.
Now with the appearance in South Africa of a new and apparently even more aggressive version of COVID – the Omicron, spreading ‘out of Africa’ across the globe in ever-increasing circles – the only firm conclusion that can be drawn is that no country will be safe until COVID is eliminated everywhere. As a recent Tablet editorial put it, now we can see that ‘morality and self-interest coincide’.
Where once we imagined that it mattered if we were ahead or behind the vaccine roll-out of our neighbours in Europe, now we see that our arrogant selfishness has brought us to a sorry pass. So it’s back to the drawing board.
Our selfishness is beginning to haunt us. First it was the Delta variant, then the Delta+ and now the Omicron. Now we know – if we hadn’t adverted to it before – that no one will be safe from COVID and its aggressive offspring until everyone is safe. All of us on Mother Earth are in this together.
The obvious answer to this dilemma is to get everyone vaccinated. But how can this be done if the vaccines are owned by companies who are interested in harvesting the rich bounty from the intellectual property rights they control.
The justification is that the profit incentive is a necessary incentive – that unless the vaccine companies had invested in research we’d still be waiting on the vaccines.
The alternative argument is that the companies – because of the supplementary investment by the EU and others in vaccine research and because of the need to have everyone vaccinated – will have to wave their usual profit margins in present circumstances.
President Joe Biden of the US and President Macron of France have called for an international agreement to waive the rights of the vaccine companies in the COVID short term. Germany and the UK objected but their opinion prevailed in the recent G7 meeting comprising Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US.
There is division too among the companies themselves. Johnson & Johnson have made their vaccines available on a not-for-profit basis. AstraZeneca agreed (for a while) but have since changed their minds – with the ever-burgeoning profits in other companies creating an irresistible temptation.
So the dilemma remains. There is a clear moral imperative in terms of making the vaccines available to everyone and that can only happen if the companies waive their rights – at least in the short term. Yet, naturally, companies motivated by profits see COVID and its variants as the promise of huge, ongoing revenues.
It’s no surprise that the latest COVID variant, the Omicron, came out of South Africa, a country where vaccination rates were low, the ideal circumstances for COVID to mutate. And it’s common knowledge that of the 11 billion vaccines necessary to jab the world’s population, at this point only a fraction of that has been applied.
The difficult truth is that the vaccine companies are not prepared to share their precious and lucrative patents and hand over the wherewithal technology to countries that could manufacture their own vaccines.
While there is growing international pressure on the vaccine companies to respond to a growing expectation that they cede their property rights in the present crisis, part of the problem is that such rights cannot be easily overturned and even if that was to happen it’s not a silver bullet for COVID.
Because even if every country had more vaccines than they needed, the reality is that countries in that position (like the US) have been unable to vaccinate their populations because of push-back from anti-vaccine groups, conspiracy theorists and so on.
Even in Ireland, where we pride ourselves on our vaccination rates, there is now evidence of vaccine fatigue where, according to Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, less than half are responding to the readily available ‘booster’ vaccine, now deemed necessary as the effectiveness of the first jabs is waning.
Who would have thought that vaccines in the fight against COVID with scientific data to back up their effectiveness – in resisting the virus, in ensuring that even if someone contracts COVID that they have less chance of being seriously ill or being hospitalized or dying – would be rejected out of hand by the professional equivalent of a pub jury? Or that some of the unconvincing theories being advanced by the spectacularly unqualified could be given even a sliver of credibility?
If we had followed the advice of the anti-vaxxers, where would we be now?