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A healthcare worker prepares a coronavirus vaccine dose

A nurse prepares a dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against Covid-19 at the Centro Cultural Paz Flor in Luanda on December 16, 2021. (Photo: Osvaldo Silva/AFP via Getty Images)

In Six Weeks Ahead of Christmas, Rich Nations Snagged More Vaccines Than Africa Got All Year

"Make no mistake: rich country governments are to blame for the uncertainty and fear that is once again clouding Christmas."

Jake Johnson

The United States, the United Kingdom, and European Union countries secured more coronavirus vaccine doses in a six-week period before Christmas than the entire continent of Africa received in all of 2021, striking inequity that campaigners say is protracting the deadly pandemic and creating conditions for more variants to emerge.

An analysis released Friday by the People's Vaccine Alliance showed that between November 11 and December 21, 2021, the E.U., U.K., and U.S. snagged 513 million vaccine doses as they accelerated their booster-shot campaigns in preparation for the holiday season.

"Extinguishing the threat of variants and ending this pandemic requires vaccinating the world."

African countries, meanwhile, got just 500 million vaccine doses throughout the entire year.

"Make no mistake: rich country governments are to blame for the uncertainty and fear that is once again clouding Christmas," Anna Marriott, health policy manager at Oxfam International, said in a statement. "By blocking the real solutions to vaccine access in poorer countries, they are prolonging the pandemic and all its suffering for every one of us."

The analysis comes as nations across the globe are grappling with the heavily mutated and highly contagious Omicron variant, which quickly emerged as the dominant coronavirus strain in several countries—including the U.S.—after it was first detected in southern Africa last month.

Marriott said that while "rich countries are banking on boosters to keep them safe from Omicron and future variants of Covid-19," booster shots "can never be more than a temporary and inadequate firewall."

"Extinguishing the threat of variants and ending this pandemic requires vaccinating the world," said Marriott. "And that means sharing vaccine recipes and letting developing countries manufacture jabs for themselves."

Maaza Seyoum of the African Alliance echoed that message, castigating the leaders of wealthy countries for prioritizing "the obscene profits of pharmaceutical companies over the lives of people in Africa."

"The Omicron variant shows that vaccine inequality is a threat to everyone, everywhere," Seyoum said. "Boris Johnson, Olaf Scholz, and European leaders need to finally support an intellectual property waiver and let Africa and the global south unlock its capacity to manufacture and distribute vaccines. Otherwise, humanity will never beat the race against the next variant."

India and South Africa's proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily suspend patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics has been stalled for more than a year as Germany, Britain, Canada, and other rich nations have obstructed progress, leaving private pharmaceutical giants with near-total control over vaccine production.

Thus far, pharmaceutical companies have sold much of their supply to rich nations for hefty profits, leaving low-income countries with leftovers and inadequate donations from their rich counterparts. Rich countries are currently hoarding more vaccine doses than they need even for their booster campaigns.

Proponents of a patent waiver argue that a suspension of intellectual property rules would allow developing countries to produce generic coronavirus vaccines for their populations without fear of legal retribution.

While the U.S.-based corporations Pfizer and Moderna have claimed that a patent waiver wouldn't help boost global vaccine production because low-income countries lack the manufacturing capacity necessary to make mRNA shots, experts have identified more than 100 firms in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that are qualified and prepared to do so.

To date, just 8.3% of people in low-income countries have received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose. In his final press briefing of the year on Wednesday, the head of the World Health Organization warned that just half of the WHO's member states have been able to reach the target of vaccinating at least 40% of their populations by the end of 2021.

If current distribution trends and artificial supply constraints continue, the WHO chief has said, the African continent might not reach 70% vaccination against Covid-19 until late 2024. At present, just 8.6% of Africa's population is fully vaccinated.

The People's Vaccine Alliance pointed out in its new analysis that in the face of Omicron, the U.K.—which has fully vaccinated 70% of its population—"has a target of administering one million booster doses of Covid-19 vaccines a day in response, equivalent to vaccinating 1.46% of the population every day."

"If every country was able to vaccinate at the same rate as the U.K. target," the alliance noted, "it would take just 68 days to deliver a first dose to everyone who needs one, leaving no one unvaccinated by the end of February 2022."

Nick Dearden, director of the U.K.-based advocacy group Global Justice Now, said Friday that "if we ever want to have a normal Christmas again, we need to vaccinate the world."

"But right now, the U.K. and E.U. are holding back international efforts to use and expand manufacturing and distribution capacity in low- and middle-income countries," Dearden continued. "It's reckless and risks trapping us in an endless cycle of variants, boosters, restrictions, and even lockdowns."

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