Western countries must share Covid vaccines – if only for the sake of their GDP | Phillip Inman

Western countries must share Covid vaccines – if only for the sake of their GDP | Phillip Inman

The world economy is on course to bounce back from the pandemic with a momentum that will carry through to next year and beyond.

This prediction, to which all the main economic forecasters subscribe – the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – is based on the successful rollout of Covid-19 vaccines in China, Russia, most of south-east Asia, Europe and the US.

Economists have adopted this optimistic view, while the vaccine-makers remain divided about the need to inoculate everyone in the world quickly to prevent new and more deadly strains of the virus from emerging.

Experts at the US’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which developed the vaccine manufactured by Moderna, and academics at Oxford University, who developed the vaccine made by AstraZeneca, say they fear a slow rollout. Covid variants will prove difficult to tackle once they have gained a foothold in countries with low vaccination rates, they say. The first reaction of any government suffering a large outbreak will be to close international borders. Boris Johnson knows this after leaving the door open to travellers from India long after it should have been closed, allowing the Delta variant to gain a foothold in the UK.

Closing borders will restrict trade and with it GDP growth. So for the economic forecasts to be correct, variants need to be kept in check.

In a flat contradiction of this position, the inventor of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, Uğur Şahin, has told the BBC that he can adapt his formula to cope with any variants that Covid cares to throw at him. Don’t worry, is his message. The future holds no fear with BioNTech/Pfizer on the case.

Unlike the government employees at the NIAID and the academics at Oxford, Şahin stands to make a lot of money from his vaccine. According to recent estimates of the value of his holding in BioNTech, he is already a billionaire twice over, and because he, his wife Özlem Türeci and their team have invented one of the most successful vaccines, the returns are only likely to increase.

Developing-world countries cannot afford to pay the fees charged by Pfizer for his product, which is why the poorest must wait at the door of Geneva-based organisation Covax, which distributes vaccines donated by rich nations. Covax has negotiated a better price from the pharma giant, but will still pay far above anything poor countries can afford.

At last week’s G7 summit in Cornwall, the world’s richest nations promised to donate a billion doses to Covax by the end of the year. It’s a large number, but far from enough. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable people, 11 billion doses are need over the same period.

Campaigners who want Pfizer and other vaccine makers to waive their patents, just while the pandemic is raging, have produced analysis showing the world could be vaccinated at a cost of $6.5bn-$25bn (£4.7bn-£18bn), compared with an estimated $100bn if manufacturers maintain their current charges.

AstraZeneca is obliged by its contract with Oxford to sell its doses at cost. If a global agreement can be struck, the US government has committed to ensure the patent on the Moderna vaccine is waived.

This weekend a group of mainly Latin American countries are gathering online to protest at the vaccine drought affecting their nations. Representatives from Mexico, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba will complain that rich countries are hoarding doses while their populations die in increasing numbers.

At the same summit, organised by Progressive International, three pharma firms will say they could begin to manufacture doses if only the big vaccine makers would tell them the recipe.

Progressive International is a leftist umbrella group and will be dismissed by some when they see that former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on its list of speakers. Yet most African states agree with the Latin American countries. Joe Biden does too. But at the G7 Angela Merkel, Boris Johnson and Justin Trudeau objected.

There were hopes the CureVac vaccine, a version of the mRNA code used by BioNTech and Moderna, would prove successful. It uses a smaller dose that can be kept in an ordinary fridge, making it dramatically cheaper to produce. However, it has just failed its initial tests.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the WHO, said at the G7 summit that with so few firms making vaccines, a patent waiver was an essential part of bringing the pandemic under control.

He didn’t mention the global economy. But without Covid-19 subdued in all parts of the world, most economic forecasts are for the birds.

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