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Failure to Vaccinate the World Created Perfect Breeding Ground for Omicron, Say Campaigners

Sub-Saharan Africa has only received enough doses to fully vaccinate 1 in 8 people.


Campaigners from the People's Vaccine Alliance say the refusal of pharmaceutical companies to openly share their vaccine science and technology, coupled with the lack of action from rich countries to ensure access to vaccines globally, have created the perfect breeding ground for new variants such as Omicron.

A year since a UK grandmother became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine outside of a trial, great strides have been made to fully vaccinate more than three billion people, but many poorer parts of the world have been left behind.

While countries like the US, UK, and Canada have had enough doses to fully vaccinate their entire populations, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have only received enough doses to vaccinate 1 in 8 people. The number of people in the US who've had their booster shot is twice the total number of people who have fully vaccinated across all low-income countries.

The People's Vaccine Alliance, which has over 80 members including the African Alliance, Oxfam and UNAIDS, are calling for pharmaceutical firms and rich nations to change course before it is too late. This must include:

* Immediate approval of the waiving of intellectual property rules to end the monopoly control of pharmaceutical firms over COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments. The World Trade Organization (WHO) General Council must urgently reconvene now, not next year, to finally get a waiver agreed.

* All vaccines, including new versions of vaccines designed to combat the Omicron variant, to be declared global public goods, and vaccine recipes and know-how shared openly with producers worldwide via the WHO.

"Omicron is with us because we have failed to vaccinate the world. This should be a wake-up call," said Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS and Co-Chair of the People's Vaccine Alliance. "Business as usual has led to huge profits for pharmaceutical firms, but many people left unvaccinated meaning that this virus continues to mutate. It is the definition of madness to keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome. We need to press reset."

"We call on Pfizer, Moderna, BioNTech and others to change course. You have made huge profits in the last year. We now have vaccine billionaires. You don't need to make any more money. Changing your vaccines to meet the challenge of Omicron is no good if your vaccine recipes are once again locked up behind a wall of profit and monopoly," continued Byanyima.

The Alliance are also calling on rich nations to change course by using all of their powers to insist on the open sharing of successful vaccine technology and know-how and to fund a huge expansion in vaccine production all over the world.

Back in March, the Alliance along with 77 epidemiologists from some of the world's leading academic institutions warned that unless we vaccinate the world, we'd be at risk of virus mutations that could render our current vaccines ineffective.

"Fighting to buy up limited supplies of hugely expensive vaccines to protect your own citizens while ignoring the rest of the world will only lead to more variants, more mutations, more lockdowns and more lives lost," said Maaza Seyoum, of the African Alliance and People's Vaccine Alliance Africa. "The same leaders, after failing the world repeatedly while allowing profiteering, are now laying the blame at the doorstep of the countries they have ignored.

"Pharmaceutical monopolies and profiteering have prevented vaccination in Africa and the rest of the developing world. It is time that pharmaceutical companies and rich nations finally put protecting people and putting an end to this pandemic ahead of profits, monopolies and self-defeating attempts to protect themselves whilst allowing this disease to rampage across the rest of the world," continued Seyoum.

"With the new threat of the Omicron variant, it is clear that we cannot just booster our way out of the pandemic, while leaving much of the developing world behind. Unless all countries are vaccinated as soon as possible we could see wave after wave of variants," said Anna Marriott Oxfam's Health Policy Manager. "What is the point in developing new vaccines in 100 days if they are then only sold in limited amounts to the highest bidder, once again leaving poor nations at the back of the line?"

"We cannot correct the mistakes of the past 21 months, but we need rich countries to chart a new path forward in which they step up and insist the pharmaceutical companies start sharing their science and technology with qualified manufacturers around the world, so we can vaccinate people in all countries and finally end the pandemic," continued Marriott.

In a statement sent to European Union negotiators and member states this week, the People's Vaccine Alliance joined with more than 170 organizations, NGOs, unions, including the ONE campaign and the International Union of Food Workers, in criticising the EU's opposition to a waiver of intellectual property rules. The statement said that "the identification of the Omicron variant only heightens the urgency of a change in approach and is evidence of why the EU's position is a threat to us all".

Last week, Norway was the latest of more than 100 countries to offer their support for the waiver at the WTO. Meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron withdrew France's earlier support, a decision the Alliance has called ludicrous and dangerous in the face of the new variant.

"It's not only shameful that six times more booster shots are being administered daily than primary doses in low-income countries, it's an enormous risk to ending the pandemic globally," said John Mark Mwanika, ITF Urban Transport Chair, Uganda. "It is no coincidence that the new Omicron variant was first discovered by scientists in countries that have been denied the right to produce their own vaccines. We are in a global emergency and workers are paying the price, particularly in the Global South."

Oxfam International is a global movement of people who are fighting inequality to end poverty and injustice. We are working across regions in about 70 countries, with thousands of partners, and allies, supporting communities to build better lives for themselves, grow resilience and protect lives and livelihoods also in times of crisis.