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Was There a Chemical Attack in Douma?

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As difficult, if familiar, questions emerge refuting the West’s allegations that the Assad regime used chemical warfare in eastern Ghouta, will Syria become the next Iraq – the next theatre for ‘Shock & Awe’? As Russia objects and talk of a new Cold War rocks Big Power relations, RASNA WARAH examines the logic of war by false pretences.

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Was There a Chemical Attack in Douma?
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Early this month, just hours before US President Donald Trump announced that he had sanctioned a strike against targeted chemical weapon factories in Syria, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told the UN Security Council that Syria’s Bashar Assad had chemical weapons that he had been unleashing on the Syrian people – a claim that appeared to be based almost entirely on a video of children allegedly suffocating after a chemical attack.

It was a scene eerily similar to the one that took place in the chambers of the UN Security Council fifteen years ago, in February 2003. Then, to justify why the United States and its allies needed to invade Iraq, the then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, described to UN Security Council members how Saddam Hussein was harbouring weapons of mass destruction in various sites across Iraq. Within days of this carefully orchestrated speech, US and British coalition forces had gathered their air and sea power around the Gulf, and the war on Iraq began, unleashing untold suffering and mayhem on the people of Iraq, whose effects are being felt to this day.

It was a scene eerily similar to the one that took place in the chambers of the UN Security Council fifteen years ago, in February 2003. Then, to justify why the United States and its allies needed to invade Iraq, the then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, described to UN Security Council members how Saddam Hussein was harbouring weapons of mass destruction in various sites across Iraq.

Powell would later regret making this speech – he had also insinuated that Iraq had links with Al Qaeda – and even went on to describe President George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq as “a strategic error” that would create a leadership vacuum in the country. Indeed, with the centre no longer holding, things started to fall apart in this once secular country, with some of Saddam’s Baath party loyalists joining rebel groups or extremist Islamic factions, including the phenomenon known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has threatened to create a “caliphate” across the Muslim world.

The Russian and Syrian governments have claimed that the most recent images of a chemical attack in Douma in eastern Ghouta are fake or stage-managed by Syrian opposition or rebel groups supported by the West, such as the first responders known as White Helmets (who are partly funded by the British government). They have questioned the timing of their chemical attack allegations: precisely at the moment when the Syrian government, with Russian military support, appears to have defeated ISIS.

There could be some truth to what they are saying. Early this week, the award-winning British journalist Robert Fisk, reporting from the site of the so-called chemical attack in Douma for the UK’s Independent newspaper, quoted a Syrian doctor who said that the children seen in the video “were not overcome by gas but by oxygen starvation in the rubbish-filled tunnels and basements in which they lived, on a night of wind and heavy shelling that stirred up a dust storm”.

Fisk’s assessment of the attack is far more credible that that of the French president Emmanuel Macron who declared that he had “proof” that Assad was using chemical weapons in Douma. Few journalists asked how he had obtained this evidence, given that the area is under government control and no inspector from the UN or from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has yet gone there to corroborate this claim.

CNN, did, however, send a reporter to a refugee camp in Turkey where victims of the Douma attack were staying. After sniffing a seven-year-old Syrian girl’s backpack, the reporter concluded that there was definitely something in it “that stings”. If the poisonous chemicals released by Assad in Douma were so life-threatening and toxic, shouldn’t the girl and her family have been quarantined and not allowed to have contact with non-medical personnel, let alone a foreign journalist?

Both the 2003 Iraq war and the latest strikes by French, British and US forces (now pejoratively being referred to as F.U.K.U.S) on alleged chemical factories in Syria were aided by Western media. In the Syria case, the media has chosen to propagate the narrative that Assad, like Saddam, is an evil tyrant that must be taken out with the help of the morally upright West that cares about democracy and human rights. Few media organisations appear to have noted the tragic irony that the West’s military interventions in Iraq and Syria have, in fact, contributed to worsening human rights abuses in these countries.

To understand more clearly Western media’s role in these disinformation campaigns, the case of Pultizer Prize-winning investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, almost a solitary dissenting voice whose reporting has been repeatedly ignored or downplayed, is particularly instructive. In March 2003, when the US-led war on Iraq was underway, Hersh revealed how, during a crucial four-month period leading up to the attacks on Baghdad, US and British officials had falsely accused Saddam Hussein’s government of trying to buy huge quantities of uranium from Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries.

In his article, published in the New Yorker, Hersh had revealed that documents used to support the uranium link between Iraq and Niger were fake. In fact, one letter dated July 2000 even bore the Niger president’s signature, a clumsy, amateurish forgery. Analysts suggested that the forgers assumed that it would be much more credible to implicate a poor African country rather than the three other leading exporters of uranium oxide, namely, Canada, Australia and Russia, who would have convincingly been able to defend themselves against charges of helping Iraq build nuclear weapons. By the time the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed El Baradei, discredited these accusations, it was too late: Washington had already begun marching towards Baghdad.

At any other time, Hersch’s story would have taken on Watergate proportions, but it barely made headlines. Although it is generally acknowledged that the truth is the first casualty of war, the Iraq war showed that journalists actively colluded in suppressing the facts, thereby becoming part and parcel of the military campaign of US and British coalition forces.

CNN, did, however, send a reporter to a refugee camp in Turkey where victims of the Douma attack were staying. After sniffing a seven-year-old Syrian girl’s backpack, the reporter concluded that there was definitely something in it “that stings”. If the poisonous chemicals released by Assad in Douma were so life-threatening and toxic, shouldn’t the girl and her family have been quarantined and not allowed to have contact with non-medical personnel, let alone a foreign journalist?

Hersh’s uncomfortable truths about the Iraq war could not, however, be ignored when his explosive exposé on the mistreatment and physical abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was published in the New Yorker in May 2004. The published images of the tortured prisoners were extremely damaging to the US military’s reputation. Even then, Washington refused to take responsibility, attributing the abuse to “a few bad apples”. The war continued and left in its wake more than 600,000 dead, casualties of a war that should have never started.

The West’s shameless occupation and fragmentation of the Arab world goes back to the 1916 agreement negotiated by Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France that enabled Britain and France to carve up and control Arab territories after the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Britain helped rebels to vanquish the Ottoman army in the Middle East and then assigned itself the territories now known as Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Palestine, while France took Syria, Lebanon and southern Turkey.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement ensured that no strong non-European military would rule the oil-rich Arab world after the Ottomans left. The strategy to achieve this was to install weak and pliant leaders (preferably monarchs) in these territories and to keep the region in a permanent state of turmoil by pitting ethnic or religious factions against each other (for example, by helping Sunni factions to take up arms against Shias, as the West has done in Syria and Iraq). All of this would be aided by a military-industrial complex that ensured the steady flow of weapons manufactured by the West into the region.

This is exactly what played out in Iraq and what is now playing out in Syria, nearly a century after Sykes-Picot. Unsettlingly for the West, the Russians have figured this out (as they did in 1917 when they made details of the agreement public), and are resisting attempts to bring about regime change in Syria. As one British security strategist remarked (before being abruptly cut off by a Sky TV anchor): Why attack Assad now when ISIS has been vanquished?

The Sykes-Picot Agreement ensured that no strong non-European military would rule the oil-rich Arab world after the Ottomans left. The strategy to achieve this was to install weak and pliant leaders in these territories and to keep the region in a permanent state of turmoil by pitting ethnic or religious factions against each other. All of this would be aided by a military-industrial complex that ensured the steady flow of weapons manufactured by the West into the region.

The logic of these wars advances on a base commercial instinct: the use of Western taxpayers’ resources for an expensive and destructive military campaign whose objective is the total destruction of enemy infrastructure. Having achieved this end (through the doctrine of Shock and Awe), a military regent is installed to oversee the extraction of enemy resources for the victor’s benefit. But just as important is the very lucrative business of reconstruction: tenders to rebuild destroyed roads, dams, bridges, pipelines, buildings, water and sewer systems, in other words, the country, are then given to crony Western private companies. Enter Blackwater, Kellog Brown and Root and other private subcontractors with close links to the political establishment in Washington, London and Paris. The whole campaign is prosecuted under cover of a media-driven narrative of Western concern and charity for the once-doomed peoples of the vanquished dictator, now living in a free and functioning democracy. We have seen it in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, to name the most recent examples. Are we going to see this charade replayed in Syria?

Assad may very well be the monster he is portrayed to be, but the much older enemies of the Syrian people are those who once again seek to perpetuate mayhem in Syria and in the region for their own selfish commercial and geopolitical interests.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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COVID-19 Vaccine Safety and Compensation: The Case of Sputnik V

All vaccines come with medical risks and Kenyans are taking these risks for their protection and that of the wider community. They deserve compensation should they suffer for doing so.

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COVID-19 Vaccine Safety and Compensation: The Case of Sputnik V
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How effective is Kenya’s system for regulating new medicines and compensating citizens who suffer side-effects from taking them? Since March 2021, Kenya has been using the AstraZeneca vaccine supplied through  COVAX to inoculate its frontline workers and the older population. This is available to the public free of charge, according to a priority list drafted by the Ministry of Health (MOH). The Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB) also approved the importation of the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia, which was initially available through private health facilities only at a cost of KSh8,000 per jab, before the MOH banned it altogether. However, there were reports in the media that the vaccine continued to be administered secretary even after the ban.

Although side effects are rare, we know that all vaccines come with certain medical risks. Kenyans taking vaccines run these risks not just for their own protection, but also for that of the wider community. The state has a responsibility to protect citizens by carefully controlling the distribution of vaccines and by ensuring that adequate and accessible compensation is available where risks materialise. These duties are enshrined in the constitution which guarantees the right to health (Article 43) and the rights of consumers (Article 46).

A system of quality control before the deployment and use of medicines is set out in the Pharmacy and Poisons Act the Standards Act, the Food, Drugs and Chemical Substances Act and the Consumer Protection Act. However, the controversy over Sputnik V in Kenya has cast doubt on the coherence and effectiveness of this patchwork system. Moreover, none of these Acts provides for comprehensive compensation after deployment and use of vaccines.

Vaccine approval and quality control

Subject to medical trials and in line with its mandate to protect global health, WHO has recommended specific COVID-19 vaccines to states. Generally, WHO recommendations are used as a form of quality control by domestic regulators who view them as a guarantee of safety and effectiveness. However, some countries rely exclusively on their domestic regulators, ignoring WHO recommendations. For instance, the UK approved and administered the Pfizer vaccine before it had received WHO approval.

The COVAX allocation system fails to take into account the fact that access to vaccines within countries depends on cost and income.

By contrast, many African states have relied wholly on the WHO Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety given their weak national drug regulators and the limited capacity of the Africa Centre for Disease Control (CDC). The Africa CDC itself deems vaccines safe for use by member states on the basis of WHO recommendations. Kenya has a three-tier approval system: PPB, Kenya Bureau of Standards and WHO. The PPB relies on the guidelines for emergency and compassionate use authorisation of health products and technologies. The guidelines are modelled on the WHO guidelines on regulatory preparedness for provision of marketing authorization of human pandemic Influenza vaccines in non-vaccine producing countries. However, prior to approval by PPB, pharmaceuticals must also comply with Kenya Bureau of Standards’  Pre-Export Verification of Conformity standards .

Vaccine indemnities and compensation 

To minimise liability and incentivise research and development, companies require states to indemnify them for harm caused by vaccines as a condition of supply. In other words, it is the government, and not manufacturers, who must compensate them or their families where required. Failure to put such schemes in place has undermined COVID-19 vaccine procurement negotiations in some countries such as Argentina.  Indemnities can be either “no-fault” or “fault”-based’.

No-fault compensation means that victims are not required to prove negligence in the manufacture or distribution of vaccines. This saves on the often huge legal costs associated with tort litigation. Such schemes have had a contested history and are more likely to be available in the Global North. By contrast citizens of countries in the Global South must rely on the general law, covering areas such as product liability, contract liability and consumer protection. These are usually fault-based, and require claimants to show that the vaccine maker or distributor fell below widely accepted best practice. Acquiring the evidence to prove this and finding experts in the sector willing to testify against the manufacturer can be very difficult.

By default, Kenya operates a fault-based system, with some exceptions. Admittedly, citizens have sometimes been successful in their claims, as in 2017 when the Busia County Government was ordered by the High Court to compensate victims of malaria vaccines. The High Court held that county medics were guilty of professional negligence, first by not assessing the children before administering the vaccines, and second by allowing unqualified medics to carry out the vaccination.

The problem is that the manufacturer has not published sufficient trial data on the vaccine’s efficacy.

In recognition of these difficulties, and in order to ensure rapid vaccine development during a global pandemic, WHO and COVAX have committed to a one-year no-fault indemnity for AstraZeneca vaccines distributed in Kenya. This will allow victims to be compensated without litigation up to a maximum of US $40,000 (approx. KSh4 million). To secure compensation, the claimant has to fill an application form and submit it to the scheme’s administrator together with the relevant evidentiary documentation. According to COVAX, the scheme will end once the allocated resources have been exhausted. The scheme also runs toll-free telephone lines to provide assistance to applicants, although the ministries of health in the eligible countries are also mandated to help claimants file applications.

Beneficiaries of the no-fault COVAX compensation scheme are barred from pursuing compensation claims in court. However, it is anticipated that some victims of the COVAX vaccines may be unwilling to pursue the COVAX scheme.  At the same time, since the KSh4 million award under COVAX  is lower than some reliefs awarded by courts in Kenya, some claimants may avoid the restrictive COVAX compensation scheme and opt to go to court. Because such claimants may instead sue the manufacturer, COVAX requires countries to indemnify manufacturers against such lawsuits before receiving its vaccines.

Sputnik V 

Sputnik V is different. Neither the WHO-based regulatory controls before use, nor the COVAX vaccine compensation scheme after use applies. Sputnik has not been approved by WHO or the Africa CDC. The PPB approved its importation in spite of the negative recommendation of Africa CDC, and in the face of opposition from the Kenya Medical Association. The rejection of Sputnik in countries like Kenya is partly due to the reluctance of Russia’s Gamaleya Institute to apply for WHO approval, partly because the manufacturer has not published sufficient trial data on the vaccine’s efficacy, and partly due to broader mistrust of the intentions of the Russian state. This may be changing as Africa CDC Regulatory Taskforce and European Medicines Agency are now reviewing the vaccine for approval while 50 countries across the globe have either approved its use- or are using it already. In Africa, Ghana  Djibouti, Congo and Angola have approved the use of Sputnik V with Russia promising to donate 300 million doses to the African Union. Such approvals have been hailed for providing an alternative supply chain and reducing overreliance on the West.

As regards compensation, Russia has indicated that it will provide a partial indemnity for all doses supplied. However, no clear framework has been set out on how this system will work. There has therefore been no further detail on the size of awards, and whether they will be no-fault or fault-based. This lack of legal specifics has added to the reluctance of countries around the world to adopt the vaccine.

As matters stand, therefore, the Kenyan government would not be able to indemnify private clinics importing and administering Sputnik V. The absence of a statutory framework on vaccine compensation by the state makes this possibility even less likely. Nor would compensation be available from the Gamaleya Institute. The only route then would be through affected citizens taking cases based on consumer protection legislation and tort law in the Kenyan courts. As we have noted, this is complex and costly. Claims might be possible in Russia, but these problems would be exacerbated by language barriers and differences between the legal systems, as well as the ambiguity of the Russian compensation promises.

The private sector can complement state vaccination efforts, but this must be done in a way that guarantees accessibility and safety of citizens.

Although the importers obtained a KSh200 million insurance deal with AAR as a precondition for PPB authorisation, the amount per claimant was restricted to KSh1 million, which is well below the WHO rates and the average tort rates ordered by Kenyan courts.  As an alternative to claiming against the manufacturers and distributors, injured patients might sue the Kenyan government. Such a claim would allege state negligence and dereliction of statutory and constitutional duties for allowing the use of a vaccine that has not been approved by global regulators such as WHO, thus exposing its citizens to foreseeable risks. This would be particularly attractive to litigants given the difficulties in recovering from the Russian authorities and the risk that Kenyan commercial importers would not be able to meet all possible compensation claims. Ironically, the use of the Sputnik V vaccine in private facilities still exposes the government to lawsuits even if it didn’t facilitate the vaccine’s importation and distribution.

What the government needs to do

The acquisition of vaccines has been undermined by the self-interested “nationalism” of states in the Global North. Only after buying up the greater part of available vaccines have they been willing to offer donations to the rest of the world. These highly publicised commitments fall far short of what is required in the Global South. Kenya’s first task must be to intensify its diplomatic efforts to increase supply through bilateral engagement with vaccine manufacturing states and in multilateral fora like the World Trade Organization, acting in alliance with other African states. Such steps are only likely to bear fruit in the medium term, however. In the short term, it is certainly sensible to involve private companies in vaccine procurement and distribution in order to supplement the supplies available through COVAX. This is recognised in Kenyan and international law as an acceptable strategy for securing the right to health. But it must be done in a way that guarantees accessibility and the safety of citizens. Accordingly, Kenya should encourage Russia (and all vaccine manufacturers) to publish full trial data showing effectiveness and risks, and to seek WHO approval on this basis. It should require them to establish and publicise detailed indemnity frameworks to allow for comprehensive and accessible compensation. It should acknowledge that citizens accepting vaccines are not only protecting themselves, but also the wider national and global community. With adequate regulation before use, the risk of doing so can be minimised and made clearer. But some risk remains, and those who run it deserve to be compensated for doing so. It is therefore imperative for Kenya to establish its own no-fault indemnity scheme for all state-approved vaccines, including those imported by the private sector.

This article draws from COVID-19 in Kenya: Global Health, Human Rights and the State in a time of Pandemic, a collaborative project involving Cardiff Law and Global Justice, the African Population and Health Research Centre, and the Katiba Institute, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK).

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Gone Is the Last Of the Mohicans: Tribute to Kenneth Kaunda

As we mourn President Kaunda, my prayer is that the death of this great African son and leader will remind us of the sacrifices that he and his contemporaries who fought for Africa’s independence made.

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Gone Is the Last Of the Mohicans: Tribute to Kenneth Kaunda
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17 June 2021

Tonight, I was welcomed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, by the sad news of the death of the first President of the Republic of Zambia and a founding father of the nation, His Excellency Dr. Kenneth Kaunda.

In this moment of great loss to Zambians and indeed all Africans, I wish to express my heartfelt condolences to the Kaunda family, President Edgar Lungu, and the government and people of the Republic of Zambia.

The demise of President Kaunda at the grand old age of 97 years brings to end the pioneers and forefathers who led the struggles for decolonisation of the African continent and received the instrument of Independence from the colonial masters in Africa.

Let all Africans and friends of Africa take solace in the knowledge that President Kaunda has gone home to a well-deserved rest and to proudly take his place beside his brothers such as Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal, Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea, Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire, Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Nelson Mandela of South Africa to name but a few.

All of them, without exception, were nationalists who made sacrifices in diverse ways. Some, like Patrice Lumumba, untimely lost their lives soon after independence. We are consoled that God granted President Kaunda long life to witness the progression of Africa through five decades of proud and not-so proud moments.

In December 2015, I visited President Kaunda at his home in Lusaka in what was to be our last meeting. As we discussed about everything from family to politics in our two countries and indeed in Africa generally, I asked him if the Africa that we have today is the Africa for which he and his contemporaries struggled and fought. President Kaunda was visibly pained in his response and at some point he broke down and wept. It was obvious to me how disappointed he was about some of the challenges that have plagued our continent for decades since independence.

As we mourn President Kaunda, my prayer is that the death of this great African son and leader will remind us of the sacrifices that he and his contemporaries who fought for Africa’s independence made. Let it remind us of the vision that they had for Africa; their hopes and aspirations; their dream for a free, strong, united and prosperous Africa. Let us, African leaders and people, never let the labour of these heroes past be in vain.

Rest well, KK. Africa is free and will be great.

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Vaccine Internationalism Is How We End the Pandemic

The G7 is prolonging the pandemic. The Summit for Vaccine Internationalism is organizing to end it.

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Vaccine Internationalism Is How We End the Pandemic
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Last week, as the Covid-19 virus claimed more than 10,000 lives each day, the leaders of the G7 met to discuss their plans to end the pandemic.

Since the last G7 meeting in February, one million more people have died from Covid-19. A new wave of the pandemic is decidedly here — and with it, the warning that the virus could mutate further and become resistant to existing vaccines.

And yet, despite this lethal urgency, a plan and commitment to vaccinate the world failed to materialize in Cornwall. Even the heralded pledge to donate a billion doses of the Covid-19 vaccine — a fraction of the 11 billion doses the world needs, and spread over a year and a half — dropped to 870 million by the time the meetings concluded, out of which only 613 million doses are truly new.

We cannot seriously expect the G7 leaders to challenge a global health system that they constructed. Nor can we wait around for fresh promises of charity. As the G7 pose for photographs on the beach, new variants of concern continue to accelerate the virus’s assault: the Alpha variant in the UK, Beta in South Africa, Gamma in Brazil, and now, Delta in India. Every minute that global cooperation is delayed is another neighborhood of lives at risk.

As of today, the G7 countries have purchased over a third of the world’s vaccine supply, despite making up only 13% of the global population. Africa, meanwhile, with its 1.34 billion people, has vaccinated a meagre 1.8% of its population. The result: At the current rate, low-income countries will be left waiting 57 years for everyone to be fully vaccinated.

That is why the Progressive International is bringing together a new planetary alliance of government ministers, political leaders, and vaccine manufacturers in an emergency summit for #VaccineInternationalism.

In this moment, every laboratory, every factory, every scientist, and every healthcare worker must be empowered to produce and deliver more vaccines for everyone, everywhere. Instead, high- and middle-income countries have used up more than 85% of the world’s vaccine supply. Many have done nothing to waive patent monopolies on vaccines. None of them have done anything to force a transfer of vaccine technology to the world.

Today, as most of the world grapples with having any vaccines at all, the United States and other rich countries grapple with what will soon be huge surpluses of vaccines.

It is clear: The end of this pandemic is now being artificially delayed. It could end — we could make enough vaccines in one year, according to Public Citizen — but instead of sharing technology and cooperating to manufacture vaccines, powerful pharmaceutical companies are choosing to extend it. The IQVIA report on the potential market for booster shots is telling: an estimated $157 billion will be spent worldwide on Covid-19 vaccines through 2025. Governments have already transferred extraordinary amounts of public money into private pockets, creating nine new billionaires — pharmaceutical executives that have handsomely profited from a monopoly on Covid-19 vaccines. Their combined wealth is enough to fully vaccinate some 780 million people in low-income countries.

This cannot go on. Now, delegations of the Global South are coming together to demonstrate models of vaccine internationalism — Cuba, Bolivia, Argentina, Mexico, Kenya, Kerala, and more. Joining their call are allies from the Global North, from the UK, Canada, New Zealand — standing ready to challenge their governments to end their loyalty to Big Pharma and surrender their control over global health institutions. With vaccine manufacturers like Virchow, Biolyse, and Fiocruz stating their willingness to do their part — this coalition has a simple goal: to produce, distribute, and deliver vaccines for all.

With this summit, the Progressive International is sounding the alarm: our lives and liberty are in danger, and the sovereignty of the South is at stake. These progressive forces are coming together to set the stage for a new kind of politics —where solidarity is more than a slogan.

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