THE UK’S response to the Covid pandemic has been branded “colonial” and “fuelled by nationalism” by justice campaigners.
The accusations have been made after a new report found the Tory government spent £1.5 billion to develop Covid health tools without imposing conditions on drug companies to prevent shortages and high costs both for the NHS and globally.
Furthermore, the medical tools highlighted in the report are estimated to have incurred costs to the NHS of at least £912 million.
“This amounts to a huge transfer of publicly developed knowledge and public funds from the state to the private sector with little accountability and no safeguards to protect the public good,” the STOPAIDS and Just Treatment report states.
One drug, Tocilizumab, was given over £115m of public investment toward its trial, only for shortages to affect patients at home and globally – all while Roche Pharmaceuticals maintained a monopoly on the drug, recording sales of £2.1bn in 2021, according to the report.
Through the UK Government’s failure to attach meaningful public access conditions to public expenditure, “Big Pharma” was able to limit supply and charge high prices for products in the UK and abroad, the report argues.
This resulted in, amongst other things, extreme vaccine inequity. By January 1, 2022, 90.1% of the UK population had received a first dose of vaccine and almost 60% had received a booster while just 7.6% of people in low income nations had received a first dose.
STOPAIDS and Just Treatment have branded system and industry practices as “colonial and extractive” and are calling for a new Research and Development (R&D) model that no longer “perpetuates extractive and colonial dynamics that threaten public health”.
“In a global pandemic, the Government implemented a response fuelled by nationalism,” said James Cole, advocacy manager at STOPAIDS.
“In doing so, it failed people in lower income nations by doling out public money to develop tests, treatments and vaccines without conditions for industry to ensure these tools are affordable and accessible for all.
“Handing the reins to Big Pharma to take products developed with taxpayer funds and market them back primarily to high income nations in an effort to maximise profit is an abject failure of public health responsibility.”
Aasiya Versi, pharma organiser at Just Treatment, said the “racist, colonial system” was extracting “huge” amounts of public resource and turning it into private profit.
“The reality of the pharmaceutical industry’s business model is rarely discussed,” said Versi. “Each year, it costs the lives of millions of marginalised people across the global south in order to sustain billions of pounds of profits generated in the West off the back of public funding and public research. But this reality was laid bare by the pandemic and is clearly detailed in this report.
“For the sake of everyone’s health we need to act upon its recommendations, that would mean the Government wrestles back power from these corporations to centre public health in our medical innovation model.”
Elia Badjo, a doctor who worked on the frontline pandemic response in the DRC, said it felt like he was fighting the pandemic with an arm tied behind his back.
“It’s simple, we lacked necessary tools and people died,” he said. “Why? We have an extractive health system that sees nations who profited from colonialism continue the 19th and 20th century approach to medical research – where the goal was to prioritise the lives of people in the predominantly wealthy, white global north above others.
“When it comes to pandemics, we aren’t racing against each other, we are all racing against the virus; there is no need for some of us to be left so far behind.”
A spokesperson for Roche said: “We are proud to have been part of a wide-ranging group including academia, industry, the NHS, NIHR, and government, that came together in an unprecedented way to fight this Covid-19 and advance our scientific understanding of the disease and its management.”
The Department of Science, Innovation and Technology was approached for comment.