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Covid-19 patient on a stretcher in Indonesia

Health workers wearing protective suits bring a Covid-19 patient to a temporary shelter at a hospital in Jakarta, Indonesia on June 24, 2021. (Photo: Agung Kuncahya B./Xinhua via Getty Images)

'It Didn't Have to Be This Way': WHO Chief Laments 4 Million Covid-19 Deaths

"Everyone deserves protection from Covid-19," said the People's Vaccine Alliance, "not just the richest."

Andrea Germanos

The official global death toll from Covid-19 hit 4 million Wednesday—a "tragic milestone," said the World Health Organization chief as he blasted "vaccine nationalism" as a "morally indefensible" position.

That number of fatalities is likely an underestimate, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in his remarks at a press briefing. Also troubling, he said, are "fast moving variants" of the coronavirus and premature dropping by some authorities of public health measures meant to contain the spread of the pandemic.

"Vaccine nationalism, where a handful of nations have taken the lion's share, is morally indefensible."
—Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

"Vaccine nationalism, where a handful of nations have taken the lion's share, is morally indefensible," said Tedros, as well as "an ineffective public health strategy against a respiratory virus that is mutating quickly and becoming increasingly effective at moving from human-to-human."

"Variants are currently winning the race against vaccines because of inequitable vaccine production and distribution, which also threatens the global economic recovery," Tedros said.

"It didn't have to be this way," he added, "and it doesn't have to be this way going forward."

Over 3.2 billion doses have been administered worldwide, but their distribution has been starkly unequal. Just 1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, according to tracking by Our World in Data.

Tedros has repeatedly criticized unequal access to Covid-19 vaccines, declaring in May for example: "The ongoing vaccine crisis is a scandalous inequity that is perpetuating the pandemic."

Backing up that assessment is the emergence of coronavirus variants including the highly contagious Delta variant, which is being blamed for a surge in Covid-19 cases in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

Sanjeev Kafely, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies' Bangladesh delegation, said Tuesday that "mass vaccination is the key to ending the spiraling deaths, infections, and hardships caused by this virus in Bangladesh and everywhere around the world."

Unequal access to doses is an obstacle to such mass vaccination, an inequity that's been the focus of the People's Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of over 50 organizations like Global Justice Now, Amnesty International, and Oxfam.

The groups accuse rich nations like the U.S. of "hoarding" Covid-19 vaccines while a small number of pharmaceutical companies control production and distribution of doses and thereby "get to decide who lives and who dies- despite the fact that they created many of these vaccines with public money."

"Everyone deserves protection from Covid-19, not just the richest," the coalition said Thursday.

Like WHO's Tedros, the alliance said the world needn't have arrived at the 4 million death toll figure and warned further needless deaths will come to pass, barring a huge boost in vaccine production.

Lamenting the "horrific milestone," Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager and spokesperson for the People's Vaccine Alliance, said Wednesday, "Many of these deaths could have been prevented had the successful vaccine science been shared and production of doses ramped up by more manufacturers across the world."

“Pharmaceutical corporations are making eye watering profits," she said, "but are refusing to share the vaccine science and know-how."

Marriott singled out the U.K. and Germany—which are now grabbing up supplies of booster shots for their citizens before many nations have secured even first doses—and demanded they back a proposal at the World Trade Organization to temporarily waive intellectual property protections on Covid-19 related technology. The Biden administration has backed a patent waiver for vaccines and is facing calls to pressure the EU to support the proposal as well.

A suspension of those trade rules, Marriott said, "would allow developing countries to make their own vaccines so that everyone, no matter where they live, can share the hope of a future free from Covid."

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