We need a better game plan to achieve overall herd immunity
An expert’s point of view on a current event.
June 8, 2021, 7:05 am
The spread of COVID-19 has taken its toll, with countless lives lost, economies severely compromised and healthcare systems under unprecedented stress. It has also highlighted – and exacerbated – serious inequalities between the rich and poor countries of the world.
Mass vaccination could lead to an economic recovery and revive markets after the devastating effects of lockdown measures taken to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Yet vaccine distribution has also cast a stark light on the economic inequalities between developed and developing countries, not only but especially African nations. The richest countries have stocked vaccines, and some have bought enough to immunize their populations three times; a One Campaign report believes that the European Union alone got 2.6 billion doses of vaccine, which would allow the bloc to fully immunize every EU resident twice, and they still have almost 500 million doses left. Vaccinating a few while neglecting the most is not an effective game plan for eradicating the virus.
As the virus continues to mutate, vaccine nationalism risks making a bad situation worse. A survey speak Popular Alliance for Vaccines underscored epidemiologists’ concerns that new variants would render current vaccines ineffective: nearly a third of the 77 epidemiologists surveyed believed it would happen in nine months or less, while two-thirds believed it would happen in less than ‘a year. Already we have seen that the vaccines currently available may not be as effective against the more contagious beta mutation of the virus which is spreading rapidly across the African continent or the delta variant which has decimated India.
The international community must act in the enlightened self-interest and adopt a multilateral strategy to defeat COVID-19 once and for all. Working together is a more efficient strategy than storage. Ensuring universal access to coronavirus vaccines and securing a global threshold of immunity is key to defeating the virus and regaining stability around the world. And in this regard, the world is lagging behind.
At the current rate of vaccine production, the Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that the poorest economies, including most African countries, will not be able to achieve mass vaccination until 2024, if ever. This could change if rich countries, like the United States and members of the European Union, support the temporary surrender of patent for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, a step that was first proposed to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2020 by India and South Africa. A waiver of intellectual property (IP) protections is supported by over 100 countries. This would help scale up vaccine production, research, and the production of medical equipment in poorer countries.
It was heartening to hear US President Joe Biden express his support for the IP waiver, and the EU’s willingness to explore the waiver in WTO negotiations is a good step. But not all European countries support it, arguing that relaxing IP protections could be a deterrent for pharmaceutical companies to continue their research. The questions remain: will the renunciation of intellectual property be accepted and if so, by when? Are pharmaceutical companies going to play ball? Will the world work together to liberalize and strengthen the vaccine supply chain to enable the participation of new producers, especially in developing countries such as South Africa, Kenya and Morocco?
Of course, producing COVID-19 vaccines and treatments is only part of the battle. Supply and distribution are also essential, but the economic constraints introduced or exacerbated by the pandemic in the developing world are adding additional obstacles to supply and distribution efforts. First, the price of vaccines is higher for developing countries: Earlier this year, the South African Department of Health confirmed that the country was listed at $ 5.25 per dose for injections of AstraZeneca, which European countries get for $ 2.16. These unfortunate practices add to the inequity. Why should African governments choose between saving lives and conserving their national assets?
Many African countries simply cannot afford vaccines. The pandemic has decimated government revenues from commodities and tourism, and it has required heavy public spending to keep economies afloat. Even before the pandemic, most African countries still had a long way to go to reach the Abuja Declaration target to allocate 15 percent of public budgets to health. In the face of an economic crisis, how are governments in Africa and other developing countries supposed to raise more funds for immunization campaigns? Even COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), the multilateral effort to purchase coronavirus vaccines for low- and middle-income countries, needs an additional $ 2 billion on top of the $ 6 billion it has already raised to reach the goal of immunizing at least 2 billion people in participating countries by the end of this year. Once again, the question of affordability is essential.
As rich countries stockpile vaccines, pressure their manufacturers, and limit supply through restrictive intellectual property protections, COVAX’s deployment has so far covered only a marginal percentage of the 1, 3 billion people of Africa. Access to vaccines for Africa and the rest of the developing world largely depends on the goodwill of the international community. By the end of this year, Africa is expected to receive around 600 million doses of COVAX. While developing countries wait, China and Russia see an opportunity for vaccine diplomacy and use vaccine donations as a chance to strengthen their economic and political relations.
As the world begins to work on a compromise on vaccine distribution, preparation is also essential. African countries must invest in their preparation for vaccine distribution. Management and logistics will be critical to prevent vaccines from expiring before they can be used, as has happened in some countries. It may also require African governments to partner with the private sector to harness existing expertise in finance, distribution and logistics, while governments focus on accelerating regulatory approvals, planning and coordination. .
Collective leadership and international cooperation are imperative to ensure sufficient production distribution of life-saving vaccines. Solidarity and multilateralism are the key to achieving global herd immunity and overcoming COVID-19 once and for all.