Like its parent organization, Gavi has largely depended on the “largesse of pharmaceutical companies,” Prabhala said: “It truly believed in the pandemic that all you needed to do is talk to pharmaceutical companies.” It offered to buy jabs from Western manufacturers including AstraZeneca and Novavax before they had been approved, making it a good deal for those companies.
A related wrinkle is that Covax will only distribute vaccines approved in the West, or by the WHO. Since that has until recently only included U.S. or UK-made vaccines they largely ignored those produced elsewhere, like China’s Sinovac and Coronavax. Now that that Sinovac and Sinopharm, another Chinese vaccine, have gotten WHO approval, Covax will likely depend on them to help meet its already dangerously modest targets, and pick up the slack left by more sparsely produced Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. Though they’ve been approved, Covax has not delivered any Moderna or Janssen doses.
The continuing crisis of international vaccine rollout is disturbing not just in its own right, but for how it suggests the climate crisis will be handled. There are plenty of overlaps between the two: The countries being worst hit by Covid-19 also tend to be worst hit by climate-fueled storms, droughts and heatwaves. The violently unequal rollout brings other lessons, too. The White House has also been keen to frame climate action as a profitable opportunity for U.S. companies to hoard valuable green intellectual property and outcompete the administration’s geopolitical rivals. As Biden told a joint session of Congress, “we have to develop and dominate the products and technologies of the future: advanced batteries, biotechnology, computer chips, clean energy,” in order for the U.S. to “win the twenty-first century.” Making those critical technologies subject to the kind of retrograde IP protections now constraining vaccines will allow corporations to charge exorbitant rents for the right to decarbonize. That not only poses barriers to deploying clean energy, but could make cheap new coal plants—likely to keep running for decades—a more attractive option for countries where millions still lack electricity. No country will “win the twenty-first century” so long as investors and executives can choke off paths to low-carbon development.