COVID-19 vaccine inequity once again exposes the cruel reality of the unequal world that we live in. At the current rate of vaccination, many high-income countries will be able to vaccinate 75 per cent of their population in the next three to five months, whereas for the lower income countries, it would take a few more years to reach the same percentage of population
It has been more than a year since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak as a global pandemic.
The virus has claimed more than three million lives across the globe so far. The pandemic, however, is more than a health crisis as it has affected all aspects of our lives.
The UN's trade and development agency, UNCTAD, has estimated that the economic uncertainty sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have cost the global economy $1 trillion in 2020 alone. The full extent of socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 will unfold in the near future, but it is definite that its reverberations will be felt differently in different parts of the world and by different communities. As in any crisis, the poor and marginalised groups will be the ones that will bear the maximum brunt of this pandemic.
Different waves of the resurgence of the COVID-19 virus in different parts of the world indicate that the pandemic is not showing any sign of being contained.
In such a situation, timely universal vaccination seems to be the only solution in the fight against the ongoing pandemic. The urgency of the situation has expedited the research and development of COVID-19 vaccines, and we now have several vaccines available.
Although the unprecedented fast tracking of vaccine development needs to be lauded, the ease of access to vaccines in different countries and by different population groups within countries remain a major challenge. Unfortunately, wealth and power are determining vaccine access as opposed to a needbased approach that would serve the populations most in need of potentially life-saving treatment.
COVID-19 vaccine inequity – between and within countries –once again exposes the cruel reality of the unequal world that we live in. As per UNICEF's vaccine data, more than 689 million doses have been administered as of March 2021, out of which only 0.1 per cent of the vaccines administered have gone to low-income countries, whereas 86 per cent of the doses have gone to high-and upper-middle-income countries.
At the current rate of vaccination, many high-income countries will be able to vaccinate 75 per cent of their population in the next three to five months whereas for the lower income countries, it would take a few more years to reach the same percentage of population. Unless urgent measures are taken by governments and pharmaceutical industries to improve vaccine access and affordability, many poor countries will only be able to vaccinate one in ten people by 2021.
'Vaccine nationalism' is at its ugly display with many wealthier countries hoarding large amounts of vaccine doses. According to the Duke Global Health Innovation Centre, higher income countries have collectively reserved five billion vaccine doses through bilateral advance market commitments. The vaccine data show that rich nations representing just 14 per cent of the world population have bought up to 53 per cent of all the most promising vaccines so far. Although the commitment of Oxford/Astra Zeneca to provide 64 per cent of their doses to developing countries shows some respite, they can only reach about 18 per cent of the world's population by 2021 with their current production capacity.
It is clear that the pandemic cannot be contained with the current rate of vaccine production and inequitable access to vaccines that we are seeing.
From a scientific perspective, the pandemic will be tackled most effectively if vaccines are distributed equitably, so that all countries can inoculate significant populations so as to reach an acceptable level of herd immunity. It is important that governments and pharmaceutical companies understand that COV- ID anywhere is COVID everywhere.
In our current globalised world, we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, and none of us are safe until all of us are safe. Current vaccine nationalism and inequitable access to vaccination is a deterrent to containing the pandemic. Many public health experts have even warned that if sufficient populations across the globe are not vaccinated on time, there is a risk of the virus further mutating, making the already developed vaccines ineffective.
The initiation taken by the WHO to set up COVAX as a global collaboration to ensure fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccination is a welcome example of international cooperation to fight the pandemic.
However, it is disappointing that even the countries that are part of the COVAX facility are making bilateral deals for vaccine procurement and hoarding disproportionate amount of vaccines.
The only viable solution to effectively containing the pandemic is to increase production of vaccines and ensure their equitable access globally. For this to happen it is imperative that governments and pharmaceutical companies put an end to vaccine monopolies and increase supplies so that there are enough doses for everyone, everywhere.
Governments should suspend patent rules at least temporarily during the pandemic. Pharmaceutical companies should openly share vaccine technologies by joining the WHO'sCOV- ID-19 Technology and Access Pool (C-TAP).
It is immoral and scandalous for pharmaceutical companies to receive billions of dollars in public funding for research and development of COVID-19 vaccines and retain exclusive rights and keep their technologies secret to boost profits. Companies and governments should recall and learn from the response that Jonas Salk, the developer of the polio vaccine, made in 1955 in response to the question about who owns the patent to it: "Well, the people I would say. There is no patent.
Could you patent the sun?" Let the life-saving vaccines be a 'people's vaccine' and not a 'profit vaccine' serving the greed and self-interests of a few companies and countries.
A version of this article appears in the print on May 5, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.