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Jan 27, 2021

“The COVID-19 vaccine is ripe for the blackmarket,” warns an NBC News opinion piece. “Iran-linked hackers recently targeted coronavirus drugmaker Gilead,” reports Reuters. “Hackers ‘try to steal COVID vaccine secrets in intellectual property war,’” blares a Guardian headline. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged and pharmaceutical companies raced to develop a vaccine, Western media routinely asserted without question or criticism the premise that vaccine “intellectual property” is a zero-sum possession that’s been “stolen” by malicious foreign actors, blackmarket criminals, and of course, dreaded “pirates.”

With rare exception, the conceit that intellectual property for the COVID-19 vaccine is a finite thing that can be leaked, spied on or stolen — presumably to the detriment of the average American, somehow — is simply taken for granted. Similarly, assumed across corporate media reports is the notion that it is the US government’s job — no, their duty — is to protect sacred American intellectual property. National security experts, weapons contractor-funded think tanks, and national security reporters uniformly decry the sinister and shadowy agents and adversaries out to snatch America’s hard-earned vaccine dominance.
Nowhere in all this fear mongering and hand-wringing is there any sense of the much greater injustice at work: that the vaccine is in fact hoarded by the security states of wealthy nations, secured for power and securitized for profit. It is virtually unquestioned that only some countries or companies should be allowed access to the knowledge of finding and developing a vaccine, and no consideration that, maybe, there’s no such thing as too many countries working toward the management and eradication of a deadly virus.

From this default capitalist — and as we will show, racist — mindset has emerged what activists have long argued would be inevitable: a global apartheid regime of vaccine access that tracks almost one-to-one with historical currents of colonialism. An extension of an IP regime that has cut off the Global South from other life-saving medicines for decades, exacerbating the devastating effects of epidemics such as malaria and AIDS.

In the wake of the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020, much of American corporate media decided to audit their own internally racist practices, but for reasons of partisan expediency and capitalist ideology, this sudden concern for historical racism seems to have stopped at the water’s edge, and U.S. media has largely covered the emerging Vaccine Apartheid regime as an inevitable act of god, rather than springing from explicit white supremacist IP fetishization, codified and defended by leaders of both American political parties. Indeed, if one were to place a map of when a country can expect to be fully vaccinated over the next few years on top of a map of economic exploitation, colonial extraction and capitalism-imposed poverty in the Global South, it would be an almost exact match. This emerging Vaccine Apartheid — while potentially complicated by Chinese soft power efforts to vaccinate the Global South — is not only inevitable, but the deliberate result of our 1990s-era, post-Cold War economic order created by the World Trade Organization.

On this episode, we trace the colonial origins of American media’s uncritical adoption of “intellectual property above all else,” why the WTO is functioning exactly how it was designed to, and how U.S. corporate anti-racism discourse goes out its way to make sure discussions of white supremacy never examine the manifestly racist effects of the American and European-led capitalist order.

Our guest is Heidi Chow, Senior Campaigns and Policy Manager at Global Justice Now.