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Workers handle a shipment of Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines at Ivato International Airport in Antananarivo, Madagascar on May 8, 2021. The doses were sent from the United Kingdom as part of the COVAX vaccine equity program. (Photo: Mamyrael/AFP via Getty Images)

Workers handle a shipment of Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines at Ivato International Airport in Antananarivo, Madagascar on May 8, 2021. The doses were sent from the United Kingdom as part of the COVAX vaccine equity program. (Photo: Mamyrael/AFP via Getty Images)

Ebola Response Veterans Urge WHO to 'Dramatically Expand' Global Covid-19 Vaccine Access

"Those of us who gave our all during the Ebola outbreak and survived it know that we cannot let our guard down. No one is safe until everyone is safe."

Brett Wilkins

Asserting that "no one is safe until everyone is safe," 30 international veterans of the public health response to the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak and over 80 other experts this week urged the World Health Organization to "dramatically expand" Covid-19 vaccine access in developing nations. 

"The emotional strain of watching people in rich countries get vaccinated while we, in the poor countries, helplessly watch our loved ones die, amounts to an injustice that must come to an end now."
—Zacharia Kafuko

The Ebola response veterans and health experts are calling on the World Health Assembly, the WHO's decision-making body, to vote in its upcoming annual meeting on proposals that would greatly increase access to Covid-19 vaccines in the Global South. Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the WHA meeting will be held virtually this year, from May 24 to June 1.

The advocates' demand came in a letter to WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus organized by Mosoka Fallah, founder of Refuge Place International, a Liberian nonprofit recognized internationally for its heroic work during the 2014 Ebola epidemic that killed over 11,000 people—almost all of them in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea—over a two-year period. More than 500 healthcare professionals died during the outbreak.

Noting that "the Covid-19 pandemic has claimed more than two million lives worldwide," the letter asserts:

We need global vaccine access to end a global pandemic. Covid-19 vaccines have renewed our hopes to end the pandemic. But without a global vaccine strategy in place to equally vaccinate people all around the world, Covid-19 mutations could render the current vaccines ineffective. We need to take a global vaccination approach to end the pandemic with commitments from G20 countries and pharmaceutical companies.

National and global security is at risk and we no longer have the luxury of time. Countries that are hoarding or having excess vaccines are shortsighted because it actually increases the risks of mutations from unvaccinated nations, rendering their stockpiles obsolete and thus fueling the pandemic.

Those of us who gave our all during the Ebola outbreak and survived it know that we cannot let our guard down. No one is safe until everyone is safe.

"As we learned through the Ebola pandemic, poverty and geography should not be the determinants of access to life-saving vaccines," the letter states. "Vaccines should be available to those who most immediately need them, with an emphasis on the ability to save lives."

"If we don't have global vaccine access for Covid-19, billions of lives in [low- and medium-income countries] continue to be at risk, and hundreds of thousands could be lost in the coming months," it adds. 

The letter's signatories ask the WHO to schedule a WHA vote on the following proposals: 

  • That each country endorses the necessity and ethical urgency of supporting the goals and means of the WHO's Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) program.
  • That each country endorse the following ethical standard: All countries that ordered more doses than they can use should immediately commit to donate excess doses to COVAX or directly to those countries most in need. G20 countries and all countries above $11,200 GDP per capita should contribute 10% of their total expenditure on vaccines to the COVAX facility to help in purchasing doses for people in low- and medium-income countries.
  • That all pharmaceutical companies should either use a multi-tiered vaccine pricing for low- and medium-income countries or waive their patent protection for such countries that have manufacturing capacity, and commit to supporting the tech transfer for such manufacturing.

"We are at a pivotal moment in human history," stressed Fallah in a statement. "Will the WHO fulfill its mandate of universal healthcare by instituting universal vaccine care? All eyes are on the WHO."

"Right now, there is no other public health matter that is more important than global vaccine equity."
—Tricia Wang,
Last Mile-Covid Straight Talk

Signatory Zacharia Kafuko, African chapter manager at 1 Day Sooner—a nonprofit organization advocating for people who want to take part in high-impact medical trials, including Covid-19 human challenge trials—said that "the emotional strain of watching people in rich countries get vaccinated while we, in the poor countries, helplessly watch our loved ones die, amounts to an injustice that must come to an end now."

Tricia Wang, co-founder of Last Mile-Covid Straight Talk and a signer of the letter, said that "right now, there is no other public health matter that is more important than global vaccine equity."

"The virus will continue to spread and mutate if we don't institute a global vaccine equity plan," she warned. 

In what many health experts have hailed as an important step toward global vaccine equity, the United States earlier this month broke with other wealthy nations to support waiving intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines. Tedros called the move a "monumental moment" in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, while others said the U.S. must do more. 

"If the U.S. truly wants to end this pandemic, it must also share its surplus vaccines doses with COVAX now and fill the access gap until additional manufactures are able to scale up production," said Avril Benoît, executive director of the U.S. division of the international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders), after the U.S. move. Benoît is not signatory to the Ebola veterans' letter. 

"The U.S. must also demand that pharma companies that received significant amounts of U.S. taxpayer funding to create these vaccines share the technology and know-how with other capable manufacturers to protect more people worldwide," she added. 

Fallah and other health experts, on the other hand, believe COVAX has been largely unsuccessful due to its failure to take into account bilateral deals and for its manufacturing and logistics shortfalls. 

As Fallah bluntly told PassBlue, "COVAX is just a way for white men to absolve their conscience." 


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