Solidarity must catch up with science: The year ahead for Covid-19
A year ago, a year ahead
Cast your mind back to December 2020: scenes of Margaret Keenan ‒ the first person to receive a Covid-19 vaccine in the UK ‒ were broadcast into living rooms across the world. By April 2021, 1 billion people had been vaccinated, a landmark described by Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s Chief Scientist, as an unprecedented scientific achievement. And as 2021 comes to a close, the level of vaccinations administered has continued to grow: Over eight billion doses have been administered worldwide.
The scientific achievement of multiple effective vaccines, developed from divergent corners of the globe, administered in countries across the world, is without precedence. But that achievement hides a dark reality. Access to vaccines has been hugely uneven: 73% of people in high-income countries have received at least one dose, compared to only 6% of people in low-income countries. The world delivered on the science, but failed on acting in solidarity.
Where we stand
The World Health Organization (WHO) continues to push for vaccinating 40% of people in all countries by the end of 2021, and 70% by mid-2022. With the end of the year looming, it looks likely that between 70 and 80 countries will fail to meet that 40% target. Why? Because there have not been sufficient efforts to ensure that existing vaccine supplies are targeted toward countries with lower vaccination rates. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General, has criticised the current reality that “six times fewer first doses are being administered in low-income countries than boosters administered globally.”
This crisis has implications beyond health. It is also an economic crisis. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has increasingly sounded the alarm that “vaccine access has emerged as the principal fault line along which the global recovery splits into two blocs.” Countries with high vaccination rates will get back to normal faster, and countries with low rates will see resurgent infections and prolonged restrictions. The IMF and other international leaders continue to make the call that the prescription for this divergent recovery is to deploy vaccines equitably worldwide.
A test for our times
Philanthropic leaders in global health have described access to Covid-19 vaccines as a moral test – “of humanity’s ability to share, of global solidarity over nationalism, of progress in ending racist exclusion from the benefits of scientific progress, and of the equal and inherent value of all human lives”. It is also a litmus test for human rights, with human rights leaders identifying access to Covid-19 vaccines, without discrimination, as part of the right to the highest attainable standard of health.
That’s why, in response to the ongoing crisis of vaccine inequity, and the parallel economic crisis exacerbated by the pandemic for many low- and middle-income countries, a number of private philanthropies came together earlier this year to form the Global Alliance of Foundations, in the hope of mobilising resources, expertise and relationships to support Covid-19 recovery. The Alliance has called on G7 countries and multinational pharmaceutical companies to urgently lift their restrictions on vaccine supply to accelerate global access.
Turning the tide
We must rapidly turn this situation around. And we can.
There are key changes that we must see to turn the tide on global vaccination access.
We must take the necessary steps to increase vaccine supply, including supporting intellectual property reforms like the TRIPS waiver and other licensing and technology transfer efforts to ensure that whatever capacity exists globally to produce more vaccines is used, and that manufacturers do not artificially limit supplies.
We must ensure that, with 1.5 billion doses now being manufactured per month, existing and forthcoming supplies are targeted at countries with lower vaccination levels. This means countries with excess doses re-distributing their supplies, in a predictable and transparent manner, to countries in need of supplies. It means countries with high vaccination levels giving up their place in the queue for additional doses.
We must also mobilise sufficient resources for all countries to procure vaccines, including through the pooled procurement mechanism, COVAX, and commit the money needed for vaccine deployment, including through multilateral development bank programmes.
Finally, we must support accountability and transparency efforts to monitor and track pandemic response to ensure we are on course and to correct where we are not delivering.
We have the tools to forge our way out of this pandemic. What we don’t have is a welder to successfully apply these tools. We can unstick the impasse in pandemic response, particularly on global vaccine distribution, with greater political leadership. The commitment of the G20 in October this year to merely explore ways to accelerate global vaccination as necessary should be considered the low point of international ambitions.
If we are to effectively overcome this pandemic and tackle global economic recovery, or take on generational challenges like the climate crisis, we must see more from global leadership. This requires each one of us to make sure we hold our leaders to account ‒ not only for their actions at home, but for their response to this global crisis.
We are only weeks away from entering the third year of the pandemic. The recent emergence of the Omicron variant has made clear once again that until Covid-19 is conquered everywhere, it can be reintroduced anywhere. If we are to end 2022 in a better position than we are ending 2021, we cannot repeat the same mistakes of the last year – hoarding vaccines, and restricting supplies so just the wealthy nations’ benefit.
We know what is needed to accelerate vaccine access, and the consequences of failing to do so. But it will not happen without collective action. That is a new year’s resolution we should all get behind.