On Monday, Joe Biden held a press conference to calm Americans concerned about the newly discovered omicron variant of Covid-19, which the World Health Organization recently described as a “variant of concern.” First sequenced in a lab in South Africa, omicron is the second strain, after the now-familiar delta, to cause alarm given its unique genetic profile. It’s the kind of mutation that’s incubated in places with particularly low vaccination rates. One way to address the omnipresent threat of such mutations would be to ensure more people had access to the vaccine around the world. As it stands, the 20 wealthiest countries have received almost 90 percent of the global vaccine supply. But the immediate U.S. response has been to recommend putting more shots into American arms—and more money into American pharmaceutical companies.
In his announcement, Biden promised to “fight and beat this new variant,” encouraging Americans to get their booster shots and noting the administration had already reached out to Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson to “develop contingency plans” should the three drug manufacturers need to develop new vaccines. As NPR reported, the companies are already testing new boosters and modifications for the inoculations they developed, patented, and refused to share with less wealthy countries. Each day, rich countries provide six times as many booster shots to their citizens as low-income nations give out first doses. It’s a “scandal that must stop now,” the director general of the World Health Organization said, just a few weeks before omicron grounded flights across the globe.
While conclusive data is sparse, studies are underway to determine the variant’s rate of transmission and the level of protection offered by current Covid-19 vaccines. But the fact of omicron’s novel structure has spurred some governments to deploy familiar defenses, circling the wagons and protecting their own even as it has become clear the issue of mutations is of truly global concern. Several countries banned travel from South Africa and other African nations, a tactic with dubious efficacy when used alone. And anyway, cases have already been recorded in Italy, Germany, and Canada, among other nations: At least one person who hadn’t traveled to Africa tested positive, suggesting the strain has already begun its community spread. All of which makes the idea of simply quarantining one nation—where the variant was discovered, though not definitively incubated—faintly ridiculous. Travel bans on their own, as Zeynep Tufekci wrote recently, are “pandemic theatrics, not public health.”
The cynicism of the bans hasn’t been lost on South Africa, among the most vocal opponents of how global vaccine distribution has been handled so far. “There was no word of support that they’re going to offer to African countries to help us control the pandemic,” one infectious disease specialist in the country told CNN, “and particularly no mention of addressing this vaccine inequality that we have been warning about all year.” Effectively, South Africa is being punished for sequencing a virus that was allowed to flourish in large part because African nations were last in line for the vax: In August, The New York Times found that Johnson & Johnson vaccines manufactured in South Africa and produced in part by South African businesses were largely being shipped to Europe. At the time, the country reported a 7 percent full vaccination rate and said most of the 31 million doses it ordered had yet to arrive.
For a brief moment in the spring of 2021, around the time 100 million Americans had received at least one dose of the vaccine, the pharmaceutical industry enjoyed a rare moment of esteem. The speed at which Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson developed Covid-19 vaccines was lauded as a marvel of science and an indication that those companies were acting purely in the interest of public good. But only the former turned out to be true, and as the pandemic shifted from a singular event to a never-ending state of existence, innovation and altruism were clouded by the more routine tendencies of mega-conglomerates controlling a necessary supply. Institutions like Oxford University pledged to donate vaccine patents, only to turn around and sell exclusive licenses to drug companies, making CEOs like AstraZeneca’s Pascal Soriot fantastically rich. The Covid-19 vaccines developed using at least $18 billion of public funds created profitable companies operating in a market expected to bring in $100 billion this year. And the United States has been jealously guarding the doses it purchased to the point where 15 million vaccine doses were simply thrown out over the last six months. According to a report from Doctors Without Borders, even if every person eligible in the U.S. got a booster shot, we’d still have 500 million excess doses left.
More than a year ago, India and South Africa submitted a proposal that would temporarily waive patents for Covid-19 vaccines and allow countries to manufacture their own. It has so far been blocked by a handful of rich countries and overwhelmingly rejected by the pharmaceutical companies whose stock prices would go down, though the Biden administration did offer support for the idea in May. (“Who will make the vaccine next time?” tweeted a pharma executive upon hearing the news.) Opponents of the waiver argue it will undermine innovation, as if playing catch-up on emerging variants is better than trying to prevent them from developing at all: A survey of epidemiologists in March conducted by the People’s Vaccine Alliance found two-thirds believed mutations could make current vaccines ineffective within the space of a year.
The pharmaceutical industry’s indifference to lower-income countries—and wealthy nations’ endorsement of their tactics—is no exception to the general rule that Covid-19 just made long-standing inequities starker. In her column on travel bans, Tufekci noted that the advanced medical monitoring that allowed South Africa to detect omicron was put in place because of the country’s ongoing AIDS crisis. As she notes, the companies that developed the antiviral to treat AIDS in the 1990s explicitly prevented poorer countries from buying or manufacturing their own. At the time, nearly 40 multinational companies banded together to sue the South African government to prevent it from importing any of the life-saving drug.