Protesters demand an end to vaccine apartheid

Protesters hold placards demanding equal access to the Covid-19 vaccine in New York City on September 20, 2021. (Photo: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

Vaccine Equity Coalition Warns 'Pathetic Trickles of Charity' Won't End Pandemic

"Rich countries are selfishly looking out for themselves but short-changing all of us. We need bold solutions now, not more empty gestures."

Ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden's global coronavirus summit later this week, the People's Vaccine Alliance is warning rich countries that mere pledges to donate additional doses to poor nations will not be enough to close the massive--and widening--inoculation gap that has left billions of people without access to lifesaving shots.

"With up to 10,000 people dying every day, nothing short of redistributing the rights to produce the vaccines will be enough."

At a virtual event Wednesday on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly, Biden is expected to push other wealthy nations to join the U.S. in taking steps to ensure that 70% of the global population is vaccinated by next September. But experts argue the president's plan to reach that goal is badly inadequate, relying heavily on vaccine charity that has yet to make more than a small dent in global inequities.

The People's Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of more than 75 human rights and public health organizations from around the world, estimated Tuesday that just 13% of the roughly one billion vaccine doses that G7 nations pledged to donate in June have been delivered thus far--a lag that has allowed Covid-19 to continue running rampant in poor regions as rich countries begin rolling out booster campaigns.

Even as they start offering third shots to certain groups--including the elderly and immunocompromised--new research shows that wealthy nations are still expected to waste 100 million vaccine doses by the end of the year and up to 800 million by mid-2022. The ONE Campaign, a global anti-poverty group, estimates that G7 countries will soon be sitting on enough excess doses to provide one shot to every adult in Africa.

"Rich countries are selfishly looking out for themselves but short-changing all of us. We need bold solutions now, not more empty gestures," Dinah Fuentesfina, campaigns manager at ActionAid International, said in a statement Tuesday. "Enough is enough, we must put people before profits. We need a People's Vaccine--now."

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it hopes to help all countries vaccinate at least 10% of their populations by the end of September and 40% by the end of 2021--modest objectives that won't be reached if current production and distribution trends persist. Overall, according to Our World in Data, just 1.9% of people in low-income countries have received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose.

Earlier this month, COVAX--a WHO-backed global vaccination initiative--slashed its forecast for available doses in 2021 by around a quarter, warning that its capacity to obtain and distribute shots to low- and middle-income nations has been "hampered" by the "prioritization of bilateral deals by manufacturers and countries."

The Biden administration says the U.S. has donated more than 140 million vaccine doses, many of which have been shipped through COVAX. But experts estimate that 13 billion doses will be necessary to end the global pandemic.

Instead of bilateral agreements and inadequate charity, the People's Vaccine Alliance has argued that rich nations and pharmaceutical companies must share critical vaccine technology and know-how with manufacturers around the world, a step that would empower low-income countries to ramp up regional production.

Failure to do so, the coalition warns, would prolong the deadly pandemic and increase the likelihood that even more dangerous variants--possibly vaccine-resistant mutations--will emerge.

"Rich countries continue to offer pathetic trickles of charity while protecting the monopolies of pharmaceutical corporations and denying billions of people protection," Maaza Seyoum of the People's Vaccine Alliance in Africa said Tuesday. "With up to 10,000 people dying every day, nothing short of redistributing the rights to produce the vaccines will be enough."

But rich countries and major vaccine makers--eager to protect their bottom lines--have stonewalled a World Trade Organization (WTO) effort to temporarily waive intellectual property protections that have entrenched the pharmaceutical industry's monopoly control over production. Pharmaceutical giants have also refused to voluntarily take part in tech-transfer efforts, including a WHO initiative in South Africa.

And despite pressure from advocacy groups and a leading scientist who helped develop key vaccine technology, the Biden administration has thus far declined to use the U.S. government's ownership of a key patent to force pharmaceutical companies to share their recipes with the world.

"The U.S. government has the recipe for the world's most effective Covid-19 vaccine and can choose to share this knowledge to help make billions more doses in the year ahead," said Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen's Global Access to Medicines Program. "The World Health Organization has established an mRNA manufacturing hub in South Africa and will need far more ambitious support than wealthy countries have offered so far. Ending the pandemic is a choice."

On the eve of Biden's Covid-19 summit, the People's Vaccine Alliance urged the U.S. president to use the virtual gathering to:

  • Reach an urgent agreement on a waiver of intellectual property rules ahead of the TRIPS council in October, so that all qualified manufacturers, especially those in developing countries, are able to produce Covid vaccines;
  • Make legally binding commitments to share vaccine doses immediately, so that the most vulnerable and those working on the front line in developing countries are protected, before rich countries give third shots to healthy adults; and
  • Use every power available to make it a requirement for pharmaceutical companies to share technology and know-how with the C-TAP and the mRNA Hub in South Africa and ensure there is enough funding to make the technology transfer happen.

"Shameful inaction by President Biden is resulting in countless preventable deaths across the global South," Asia Russell, executive director of the Health Global Access Project. "President Biden must use his global stage at the Covid-19 summit to call for rapid passage of a robust TRIPS waiver at the WTO. The world can't tolerate another day of his deadly delays."

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