The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world in the last one year has been quite enormous. Well over half a million lives have been lost. Hundreds of people have been out of jobs, and trillions of dollars of wealth have been affected.
Thus, it is not too surprising that there is a tremendous interest in the development and distribution of vaccines across the globe. Manufacturing companies, despite humanitarian pressures, still expect to recoup their investment in research and development, along with the costs of production and distribution.
There are tough questions too concerning access. Who should receive the initial doses of any vaccine? Who determines who is allowed into the queue and in what order? What special advantages accrue to the country where a vaccine is developed? To what extent will wealthier countries crowd out poorer ones?
All these issues have motivated many world leaders like Pope Francis, and German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to call for broad global cooperation that will deliver COVID-19 vaccine shots to every doorstep to help defeat the pandemic.
But it is clear that the global race for the vaccine will not live up to the lofty rhetoric of these large-hearted leaders. The reality is that the pursuit of the vaccine is driven by nationalism, domestic politics, pharmaceutical profit, and the urgency to return society to normalcy first in our own backyards.
One of such companies that has taken vaccine politics and nationalism to a ridiculous level is American-based pharmaceutical company, Pfizer. According to international broadcasting network, Gravitas, Pfizer is holding many third-world governments to ransom, interfering with their legislation, and even demanding military bases in return for vaccines.
The reports revealed that Pfizer has vaccine deals with nine Latin American countries: Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay. Two major Latin American nations are missing from this list- Argentina and Brazil. Neither has a deal with Pfizer, but both have bizarre stories to tell.
Argentina and Pfizer, according to Gravitas, began talks in June last year with Pfizer. President Alberto Fernandez held a meeting with Pfizer CEO in Argentina. what followed was Pfizer asking to be compensated for the cost of any future lawsuits. This means if someone files a civil lawsuit against Pfizer in Argentina, and if that person wins the case, it won’t be Pfizer paying compensation but the government of Argentina.
Although Argentina has never done this before, it made an exception it needed life-saving vaccines, since desperate times call for desperate measures. The country’s parliament passed a new law in October 2020 in line with this request. However, Pfizer kept demanding the rephrasing of the law to even cover payment for negligence from its own mistakes, as well as if it happens in any future partnership with Pfizer.
Argentina agreed to Pfizer’s endless demands including the one to buy international insurance to pay for potential future cases against the company in Argentina. It was when Pfizer came back with more demands that it wanted sovereign assets as collateral that the country put its foot down to say no.
In clear terms, Pfizer was using Argentina’s desperation to ask for the country’s bank reserves, military bases, and embassy as collateral just to get vaccines for its depleting population.
There is no doubt that Pfizer is sitting on a pile of life-saving drugs, but what gives the American company such delight and right to bully a government, profiteering from the plight of the citizens when virtually all vaccine manufacturers have always enjoyed a certain amount of liability waiver in almost all countries of the world.
For Brazil, then the world’s third most affected country, Pfizer made a request for the same things they wanted from Argentina and went a step ahead to ask Brazil to create a guarantee fund and deposit money in a foreign bank account on the 23rd of January 2021.
Pfizer was clearly abusing its position, having developed a vaccine with the help of government funding, the company is now throwing tantrums at other third-world governments. It is on record that Pfizer’s German partner, Biontech, was given 445 million dollars by the government of Germany. The US government paid Pfizer 2 billion dollars as early as July 2020. This was different from money made from pre-orders. Pfizer is looking at making 15 billion dollars from vaccine sales this year alone. The company is in talks with 100 countries and organizations, and there is no dearth of money for this company so why then would Pfizer want to squeeze desperate countries of their assets, like the case of some nine Latin American and Caribbean countries that struck deals with the company for vaccines? Most probably they were forced to give up their military bases, embassy buildings, sovereign funds just because they are third-world countries? Why should a Pharmaceutical company be interested in military bases?
Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the World Health Organization, several governments, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation came together to form the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility. Its creators propose that any effective vaccine that emerges be treated as a global public good, to be distributed equally around the world, regardless of where it was invented or of a country’s ability to pay. The WHO put forward a global allocation framework that sought to ensure priority for the most vulnerable populations and health-care workers. Nigeria and many African countries are beneficiaries.
The world of vaccine politics is garnished with a lot of irony. Pfizer, even with its shrewd and draconian negotiation practices, supported the COVAX initiative. The American drug company committed 40 million doses to poor countries this year. On the 22nd of January, 2021, the company put out a press release signed by its Chairman and CEO, Albert Burler that Pfizer “believes that every person deserves to be seen, heard and cared for, and that’s why from the very beginning of our vaccine development program, Pfizer and Biontech have been firmly committed to working towards equitable and affordable access of COVID-19 vaccines for people around the world….”
This is what analysts on Gravitas describe as the peak of Pfizer’s hypocrisy. Behind closed doors, the company is bullying poor countries and holding them by the balls. Meanwhile, in front of the press, it is playing the messiah of the world. It is quite unwholesome that a company that the world looks up to with great expectations, could be pointed out as profiteering from the global pandemic.