The political economy of vaccines Businessmirror

The political economy of vaccines Featured

IN the past, I commended the Deegong for his efforts to contain the pandemic — in contrast to what his counterpart did in America, allowing 370,000 people to die. But this is not about Trump; this is about the political economy of the vaccine. Its scarcity and value, demand and supply profiles, the logistics covering distribution, vaccination and leakages — and for the skeptical, its true utility. And further, to resolve a conundrum. Who has a prior claim to this life-saving serum?

The medieval remedy

When the pandemic struck early last year, the knee-jerk global reaction was to apply an archaic remedy against the plague — the Black Death of the late Middle Ages — lifted from a medieval physician’s handbook. Towns and cities were locked down to prevent the infected not so much from coming in as from escaping out. Not much was known about communicable diseases, proper hygiene, vermin and viruses during this period. Later advances in medical technology broadened our knowledge of public health. After a year of devastation since Wuhan, it would appear that our remedies of choice — sporadic lockdowns and government-imposed arbitrary quarantines — were more destructive than the virus itself. Closing our borders and putting our people in seclusion, the global strategic recourse, resulted in massive unemployment, hordes of homeless and havoc in our economy.

Market-driven choices

The efficacy of vaccinations against a pandemic and its controversial public acceptability were never widely debated, only presumed to be the ultimate tool to impede any and all viral attacks, even as our knowledge of the coronavirus itself and its mutative nature were at best imperfect. This was the predictable treatment propounded by international health institutions — the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration, and private billionaire-movers and the Faucis of the world, all suspected of pushing their own agenda while expediently working hand-in-glove with Big Pharma. This fed right into “conspiracy theories” made more believable when the development of vaccines that typically took years of rigorous testing, clinical trials and regulatory hurdles were telescoped into mere months. Cutting corners are dangerously bound to occur when fast-tracking vaccines to market.

Mandatory health protocols

Health experts, scientists and economists called for government-mandated wearing of masks, social distancing and washing of hands against infections of contaminants, airborne or otherwise. Instituting obligatory health protocols, testing and contact tracing and individual quarantine were much more effective than the oppressive capricious lockdown and general quarantine, throwing economies in disarray.

It was a cinch for the manipulative Big Pharma, global business conglomerates and health institutions to prime the terrified world to clamor for immediate approval of the vaccine as the deus ex machina. Whether the needs are for real or ephemeral, its expected appearance was now an urgent quantifiable demand — necessary balm to alleviate the horrors of the contagion that continue to kill loved ones. Fear of death is the perfect marketing tool.

Supply vs demand

Multilateral institutions — the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the United Nations and its adjunct agencies — are opaque about the trillions of dollars of damage this pandemic continues to inflict on the world economy and its true impact on society, particularly those of the developing world. How much vaccine is really required to attain that spectral “herd immunity” sufficient enough to allay the fears, perforce restart and sustain economic activities are fundamentally unknown quantities. Then again, the invisible hand navigating the market will kick in, realigning supply to the demand, with prices leaning towards the short-term advantage rather than long-term value creation.

Conservative guesstimates on when the world economy and social life return to normal range from two to five more years for the former, or none at all for the latter. Left unsaid is the Third World being flung back to the “dark ages.” Truly sad prospect indeed!

On the supply side, the combined world production capacities of the five or so major vaccine developers are sufficient for more than one-third of the world’s population by the end of 2021. “But many people in low-income countries might have to wait until 2023 or 2024 for vaccination.” (Duke Global Health Innovation Center in Durham, North Carolina.)
The best estimates are for Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca to produce a maximum of 5.3 billion doses for 2021. Gamaleya’s Sputnik V may cover another 500 million people per year outside Russia starting 2021 — provided Russia’s 146 million people are served first.

The same goes for China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm for its 1.4 billion people.

Rich countries have priority

But here’s the rub. The richer countries, particularly those in Europe that account for only around 13 percent of the global population, have already preordered half of the existing available doses, with options for additional extra doses covered by ironclad contracts.

The remaining poor may have to rely on “…contributions from Covid-19 vaccine Global Access Facility (Covax), a joint fund for equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccine…for low-income countries based in the World Health Organization, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) in Oslo.”

Some 189 countries have signed up for Covax, with the rich ones pledging to subsidize vaccine access for 700 million doses plus 2 billion more by year-end. The Philippines, a signatory, is guaranteed vaccines for 20 percent of our population, allocated over time but triggered only after the rich countries’ contracts with suppliers are satisfied beforehand.

Unequitable access

It is a given that the vaccine manufacturers are not ramping up their production out of altruism. Public health is big business and Big Pharma is there to satisfy global demand.

Inclusive of “socialist country- produced vaccines” from China and Russia, the profit factor cannot be deleted from the equation. Profit is the imperative for research and development of medicines and cures. Which means even poor countries like the Philippines must compete for supply — at market prices. It is therefore almost criminal for our political leadership not to have anticipated our vaccine requirement. The recent moves to “drop the ball” on the Pfizer vaccine, as intimated by Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. “smells of rotten fish.” This is the bane of Philippine political life — rent-seeking and kleptocracy.

Logistics and corruption

It should be obvious that funds are insufficient to vaccinate 110 million Filipinos. If we are lucky, 22 million Pinoys can be vaccinated by 2022, leaving 88 million to play a deadly version of Russian roulette — awaiting the vaccine or Covid, whichever comes first. These times, rent seekers reign supreme, provoking importation and distribution complications causing scarcity and deprivation.

The rich buy at any price in the open market. Those “malakas” employ bribery to jump the queue for government-subsidized vaccines. And the smugglers and kleptocrats survive and flourish in a regime of corruption. They thrive on logistical complexities.

Duterte’s recent nonchalant revelation of the Presidential Security Group’s vaccination is shameful and egregious. This is what is wrong with our system when the top man himself is complicit. These were “smuggled vaccines” as none of our regulatory agencies have green-lighted any for distribution. In Binondo rumor has it that a two-shot Sinovac goes for P34,000. Such are the sordid part of our logistical nightmare — a dose of “kickvac-cine.”

We fervently hope that our leaders follow the rule of law and not go above it and moderate their greed.

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Read 343 times Last modified on Wednesday, 13 January 2021 11:41
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