By Penny Lutung Amor
The novel coronavirus has shown glaring flaws in the world’s collective ability to respond to infectious disease outbreaks, with none more evident than wealthy countries’ self-destructive unwillingness to cooperate on vaccine equity for the benefit of the entire global population.
Since the world’s wealthiest countries have been the primary contributors to the great global disparity between the vaccine haves and have-nots – it’s time that African leaders push G20 heads of state to address and rectify the life-threatening vaccine imbalance at the upcoming summit in Rome, Italy at the end of October.
As of early October 2021, 3.6 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered globally, with 78% of those going to people in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Less than 7% of the 1.3 billion people on the African continent have received even one dose. The discrepancy is worse for people in low-income countries where less than 1% have gotten a shot.
It’s no surprise that there are not enough doses to vaccinate our world when wealthy countries have secured enough vaccines to inoculate their populations as much as five times over, according to Duke University. Even though the world will have created 11 billion total doses by the end of this year, almost 9.9 billion of those have already been promised to wealthy nations.
The Covax initiative, while promising, was supposed to supply lower-income countries with sufficient vaccine doses. However, that mechanism clearly has fallen short of its initial goal to vaccinate 20% of recipient countries, which is still far too little when the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) states that a vaccination rate of 70% is required to protect the world.
A debate in the U.S. and other high-income countries now centers around booster shots, while Africa and other hard-hit regions struggle. W.H.O. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently said it was “unconscionable” that some countries are now offering booster shots “while so many people remain unprotected.”
The time has come for African leaders to amplify their voices in a combined effort to demand that G20 leaders prioritize global vaccine access for the majority of nations that desperately want to vaccinate their populations.
That must start with pushing pharmaceutical companies to share their know-how and technology to increase production in Africa and globally. Africa can no longer wait for vaccine charity, it is time to get rid of patent monopolies for successful vaccines against the coronavirus, whose development was supported by $100 billion in public funding from taxpayers in the US, Germany, and other countries.
Taxpayers were the primary funders of COVID-19 vaccine research, development, and production – the world owns that intellectual property, not the drug companies that continue to profit from the pandemic.
According to Action Aid, Moderna, BioNTech, and Pfizer are reaping astronomical and unconscionable profits due to their monopolies of mRNA COVID vaccines, with the three corporations having earned more than $26 billion in revenue in the first half of the year.
Further steps that leaders of the wealthiest economies must take are raising at least $100 billion, enough to vaccinate our world, committing to international cooperation as the most fundamental way to address pandemics, and drafting a new Global Public Health Convention to serve as the worldwide health governance system to rapidly respond to future outbreaks.
The global COVID-19 response has been abysmal since the start, but African leaders have the opportunity to rally together and speak as a united force for the good of all Africans and the world. If one nation is under threat from COVID-19 with no access to vaccines, all nations are in danger. The G20 leaders must acknowledge that reality and act accordingly. The fate of the world is in their hands at the upcoming Summit— by ensuring vaccine equity, we will be protecting the entire world.
The author is the Africa Bureau Chief for AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF).