The coronavirus doesn’t discriminate—it has devastated families and communities all over the world, with more than three million deaths since the pandemic began.
Now, the U.S. and other rich countries are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But no one will be safe from COVID until there is global vaccine access.
In other parts of the world, the situation is still dire. My two grown sons and I traveled to Ethiopia and Somaliland in January to see friends and family, and to bring a suitcase full of masks and gloves for people there who do not have access to personal protective equipment. We hope to return soon to bring more.
Coming from the United States, it was especially hard to see how devastating the pandemic is in Ethiopia, my home country. Not only do people there not have PPE or access to a vaccine, they don’t have treatments for COVID-19, or any way of quarantining sick people.
COVID is spreading through many countries like wildfire. And because of the inequities that so often leave most of the world’s population behind, many people in low- and middle-income countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, South Africa and India will likely not get vaccinated until at least 2022, or—for the poorest countries—2024.
We have the knowledge and technology to help everyone—not just people in rich countries—with vaccines, treatment and testing. But there is a supply problem. Today annual COVID vaccine production capacity is 3.5 billion doses—we need 10-15 billion.
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It should be obvious that we need to make getting vaccines to people all over the world a priority. But the very industry that produces those life-saving vaccines is holding us back, because an arcane World Trade Organization rule—the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights—requires WTO countries to give monopoly protections for medicines, diagnostic tests and the technologies used to produce them. Led by South Africa and India, a coalition of more than 100 WTO member countries is calling for a temporary waiver on that monopoly, so developing countries could produce their own vaccines and treatments.
WTO is meeting on May 5 to discuss the TRIPS waiver, and U.S. support is crucial. But the Trump administration and a handful of other countries had opposed the waiver, and President Joe Biden has not yet stepped up to change that.
It’s not because this is an unpopular idea: the director general of the World Health Organization supports the TRIPS waiver; as do health and human rights groups including Doctors Without Borders, Partners In Health, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Doctors for America and the American Medical Student Association. Sixty former heads of state and 100 Nobel Prize winners have urged Biden to back the waiver, as have 2 million Americans.
I and many other Mainers have relatives and friends in countries around the world, and we can’t disconnect from those people. But when it comes to this pandemic, we’re all connected—and not just by our common humanity. None of us are safe until we’ve reached a worldwide critical mass of vaccination.
President Biden and his advisors are deciding right now whether to do the right thing and the best way for us to urge him to do so (as Mainers, Americans, and human beings) is to ask the members of our congressional delegation to tell him they support the TRIPS waiver. Unless we come together and fix this broken system, people all over the world will die as huge pharmaceutical companies profit. Let’s not let that happen.