From AIDS to Omicron: How America’s pharmaceutical apartheid creates a viral underclass
December 1 was World AIDS Day, marking forty years since symptoms were first reported. Over 36 million people have died worldwide from AIDS-related illnesses.
The death rate is slowing as effective drug treatments gain wider distribution. But the inequity that long fueled the AIDS epidemic still exists, with punishing consequences, particularly for the people of southern Africa. The persistence and the vastly unequal impacts of the ongoing AIDS epidemic serve as a warning as the new Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus makes its way around the world.
Little is currently known about this newly-identified SARS-CoV-2 variant referred to as Omicron, particularly whether it spreads more easily or if it can cause more severe COVID-19. What we do know is thanks largely to its rapid identification by scientists in Botswana and South Africa.
“I think they need to be celebrated for that because there wasn’t a cloud of secrecy around this particular variant,” said Fatima Hassan, founder of Health Justice Initiative.
Rather than being celebrated, though, the nations of southern Africa are being isolated. The United States quickly implemented a travel ban, barring anyone from eight southern African nations from entering the country. Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran and the U.K followed suit.
“An uneven travel ban was slapped on many countries in southern Africa,” Hassan said. “It is actually quite racist.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa responded to the bans, “The emergence of the Omicron variant should be a wake-up call to the world that vaccine inequality cannot be allowed to continue. Until everyone is vaccinated, everyone will continue to be at risk. Instead of prohibiting travel, the rich countries of the world need to support the efforts of developing economies to access and to manufacture enough vaccine doses for their people without delay.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres slammed the travel bans as “travel apartheid,” which only serve to exacerbate the growing global divide caused by vaccine apartheid. In a recent opinion piece, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the hoarding of surplus vaccine doses by wealthy nations with populations that are highly vaccinated, including with booster shots, “morally repugnant and epidemiological madness.”
It would be easier to vaccinate the world than to try in vain to block COVID-19 variants from crossing borders. Omicron is a case in point; as the New York Times detailed this week, the variant was already present in the Netherlands before its existence was announced in Africa.
Travelers on airplanes from South Africa carried the variant to Europe, where the hodgepodge of conflicting national travel restrictions already in place and inadequate quarantine protocols led Dutch officials to force many potentially Omicron-positive travelers to depart for their final destinations, accelerating the new variant’s spread.
Pharmaceutical corporations that are profiting off of the pandemic are slowing vaccination in poor and middle-income countries. With patents on the vaccines, companies like Pfizer, BioNTech, and Moderna are using intellectual property protections to block the sharing of their secret vaccine formulas.
Journalism professor Steven Thrasher sees a parallel between the role of Big Pharma now with COVID-19 and how the Global South, and primarily southern Africa, was and continues to be afflicted by AIDS:
“Today there is no reason why anybody should be dying of AIDS. It is a slow-moving virus and so from the time we know someone is infected, we can give them all the support they need. We have the science for it. We have the medicine for it. It is merely a matter of protecting capitalism and the profits of pharmaceutical companies,” Thrasher said on Democracy Now! “We are seeing very similar dynamics again now with COVID-19… we have the vaccines, we have medications that are very effective and they are again being held from the Global South to protect the profits of pharmaceutical corporations.”
Over a year ago, South Africa and India proposed that the World Trade Organization temporarily suspend TRIPS, or Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, to speed COVID-19 vaccinations worldwide. President Joe Biden was applauded last May for supporting the waiver. Amnesty International, along with members of the U.S. Congress and many labor, health and other civil society groups delivered a petition signed by over three million people to the White House last week, noting, “six months later, in the absence of U.S. leadership to deliver a waiver deal, the European Union, on behalf of Germany, plus Switzerland and the United Kingdom have blocked progress.”
People over profit must be the guiding mantra as we soon enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Without immediate action, we could well be dealing with COVID, just as we still battle AIDS, for the next forty years.
Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan
Originally published on as The Viral Underclass: COVID-19 and AIDS Show What Happens When Inequality and Disease Collide