Our global equity instruments have failed us once more. Today, as the COVID-19 vaccines continue to roll out in America, Canada and Europe and making its way to Australia and New Zealand, our vaunted global equity instruments and conventions have been left dumped on the side of the road. This is now vaccine nationalism – the rich are in front of the line, the poor will watch on with dead bodies accumulating around them. Guyana must use its voice to lead the call for an end of this injustice. We must call for equity in the access and distribution of vaccines. Vaccines, the result of sound science and the work of talented scientists around the world, represent a public good, not a public good for the rich, but a public good for everyone.
Our best hope of exiting the COVID-19 era is the vaccine against COVID-19. The scientists, at breakneck speed, have been able to bring several vaccines to the point of utilization and or close to the point of utilization. Two vaccines are now being rolled out in developed countries, mainly in the US and Canada, the UK, Germany and several other countries. Three vaccines that have not completed all phases of clinical trials, led by the Astra Zeneca/Oxford University vaccine, are on track to be approved for utilization by end of March. The Russian Sputnik IV Vaccine is in full use in Russia. The Chinese have vaccinated more than one million citizens with a Chinese vaccine. But neither the Chinese nor Russian vaccines appeared to have been scrutinized via well-established clinical trials. Long before these successes, scientists had developed, within days of COVID-19’s appearance, the genomic (DNA) sequence of the virus that allowed this breakneck speed in vaccine development. It also allowed almost instantly, the development of diagnostic, screening and surveillance testing for COVID-19. Scientists have shown that with science we can respond to even the most dangerous and deadly public health assaults. Even as we celebrate the scientists, we must acknowledge the reality, we still have no medicine.
With the vaccines being in use already in developed countries, hopes are high that we can tame the deadly COVID-19 virus, sooner than later and in 2021, no later. But this hope might be too optimistic because while it is possible that the people in developed countries will have full access to the vaccines against COVID-19, there is a real possibility that the still existing North-South divide will rob people in developing countries full or even meaningful access to the vaccines anytime soon. The forecast is that most developing countries will begin to have access to vaccines late in 2021 and many more likely in 2022. Scientists have brought us a solution. Global politics is bringing us nationalism, with the benefits of science subjected to inequitable distribution.
The rich multi-lateral companies that developed vaccines with the help of public sector money, taxpayers’ money, will become a little richer. The COVID-19 death trail will linger in poor communities and poor countries much longer than it would in rich countries because the vaccine will be another tool in the tool box to fight against COVID-19 in the richer countries. The poor countries will again look on, waiting for the trickled-down benefits.
The MDGs, a global equity treaty that ended in 2015 and its successor, the SDGs, both called for equitable and fair access to technology, medicines and vaccines. There are international conventions, such as the Convention on Bio-Diversity (CBD), the Nagoya Protocol and the WHO’s International Health Regulations (IHR) and the WHO’s Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PIP) Reporting Network, together with the TRIPS arrangement under the WTO which are designed to improve equity in the access to scientific discoveries, vaccines and medicines etc. But decades after some of these agreements, the ideals of equity and fairness are practiced in the breach.
If anyone wants more evidence that the global equity instruments must be strengthened, if equity is indeed the overall goal, the COVID-19 Vaccine horizon is a telling and sad story. Millions, maybe hundreds of millions of people, in developed countries will be vaccinated long before anyone in the developing countries will be vaccinated with any of the approved vaccines. This cannot be equitable and fair. All the big talk of equity at the UN, the ambitious goals and aspiration of global treaties and conventions continue to expose our weak equity ledger. A life is a life and no one must continue to support a global architecture that persists in giving more value to lives because of the accident of birthplaces.
COVAX is a global partnership designed to lessen the present global inequitable platform. More than 150 countries are partners in COVAX. Certain rich countries have not signed on as partners in COVAX. It is interesting to note that Pfizer and Moderna are not signatories in COVAX. AstraZeneca’s vaccine is the most prominent of the COVAX vaccines. As of now the partnership is coordinated by GAVI and includes the Gates Foundation. COVAX’s goals include being able to guarantee enough vaccines to cover 20% of the population in developing countries, targeting the most vulnerable. It means that countries must fund the vaccination for the rest of the countries’ population. Many countries will not be able to afford this.
Already COVAX is cautioning that it will only be able to start with a coverage goal of 3% and might fall short of the 20% target. This is because they worry about the capacity to produce enough doses and the funding. Already COVAX is falling short by more than US$6B in their funding needs.
Vaccines should be available to everyone everywhere at the same time. Vaccines must always be a public good. That is what the global scientists work for. Global politics is standing in the way.
Dr. Leslie Ramsammy