Newsletter #24: How to End Global Vaccine Appartheid, with Achal Prabhala

By Michal Schatz

A few months into his presidency last year, Joe Biden issued a statement on global vaccine distribution proclaiming that “The United States will be the world’s arsenal of vaccines in our shared fight against this virus.” The US, of course, has not delivered on this pronouncement. Rapidly emerging new Covid variants have increased demand for mRNA vaccines among wealthy countries, delaying their distribution to those in the Global South while rendering vaccines made with traditional vaccine technology (e.g. Johnson&Johnson) insufficient to quelling Covid’s spread. But as Astra Taylor’s conversation with Achal Prabhala in this week’s Dig episode makes clear, Global South countries do not need charity from the world’s vaccine arsenal – they need the technical ability to manufacture mRNA vaccines themselves.

The vaccine apartheid currently prolonging the pandemic lies at the nexus of the philanthropy industrial complex, capitalist profit motive, and ultranationalism. I was surprised to learn in this episode that mRNA vaccines are actually easier to produce than traditional vaccines. It is neither production challenges nor lack of funds preventing poor countries across the world from manufacturing life-saving and (hopefully) pandemic-ending mRNA vaccines, but an artificial production blockade generated by pharmaceutical companies’ and Northern countries’ refusal to waive IP law to expand global manufacturing capacity. Meanwhile, misguided perceptions of US superiority alongside imperialist condescension – however well meaning – has led key US advocacy groups like PrEP for All to throw their weight behind Biden’s unsustainable charity model for global vaccine distribution.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

In all of this, it would be easy to miss one of Prabhala’s key points in the interview: money is not the issue. Many developing countries’ governments have the funds to buy a license to produce mRNA vaccines. Yet, companies like Moderna are hesitant to sell manufacturing licenses to Global South countries for fear of profit loss under unpredictable conditions – for example, if a government like India decided to void the licensing contract during a state of emergency. Rather than waive IP rights or force these companies to license manufacturing rights, the US and other wealthy countries like the UK are protecting these companies by pouring money into vaccine donation plans that prolong the pandemic and force developing countries into a permanent state of dependency.

During Trump’s presidency, and particularly at the onset of the pandemic, there was widespread speculation about the death of neoliberalism. Looking, in particular, at developed countries’ approach to vaccine distribution and production worldwide, it’s hard to disagree with Martijn Konings’ recent assessment that those speculations were premature. Indeed, encasing, to use Quinn Slobodian’s term, private companies from Third World sovereign interests in the world market was neoliberalism’s solution to decolonization in the twentieth century. In his recent book,Uncommon Wealth, Kojo Koram shows how the British government eroded newly independent states’ sovereignty in the Third World to protect private capital from nationalization efforts. Today’s vaccine apartheid is the latest manifestation of developed countries’ project to deny post-colonial states their sovereignty.

As Prabhala indicates, the global response to the pandemic, and particularly to vaccine distribution, has troubling implications for the climate crisis. Towards the end of the interview, he raises the urgent question of twenty-first century ultranationalism, suggesting that it is like “a deliberately illogical, counter-intuitive way of staging a kind of domestic political theater.” With neoliberalism’s imperial logic in mind, I’m inclined to disagree. The ultranationalism we’ve witnessed throughout the pandemic simply is not deliberately illogical, but rather obeying a different logic than that of the social good. Despite privileged access to mRNA vaccines, the pandemic is not over in the Global North either, but these countries have eliminated free testing and Covid-related restrictions and told their residents and citizens to get back into the economy as cases and deaths continue to rise. The US acting as the world’s “arsenal of vaccines” serves to further protect private capital from the risks of Global South states’ sovereignty. Accomplishing a cooperative, planetary response to the climate crisis will require breaking the global market’s casing in the name of global social survival.

Further Reading and Listening

Achal Prabhala has written extensively about vaccine apartheid in the Guardian. You can also check out Prabhala’s first Dig interview here. For Jacobin, Aishu Balaji writes about how COVAX and the charity model for global vaccine distribution perpetuates developing countries’ subordination to those of the Global North, while Kevin Klyman argues that vaccine apartheid is bolstering US empire. To read more about neoliberal thought and decolonization, check out Quinn Slobodian’s book Globalists.