Vaccine apartheid threatens global effort to contain COVID-19

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Vaccine vials. Image credit: Daniel Schludi/Unsplash

"I've personally received more doses of a COVID-19 vaccine than 130 countries," Dr. Craig Spencer writes, about the two vaccine shots he recently got as an emergency room doctor. In 2014, he contracted ebola while combating that epidemic in Guinea, Africa. Dr. Spencer knows the value of public health protocols, personal protective equipment, or PPE, and vaccinations.

"Just a few weeks ago, one of the only countries in sub-Saharan Africa to get vaccines was Guinea, and they received 25 doses -- not 2,500, not 25,000, but 25," Spencer, director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine at Columbia University, said on the Democracy Now! news hour. "I've been vaccinated, thankfully, but my friends who work in a clinic in southern Burundi in East Africa may have to wait until 2022 or 2023."

The problem Dr. Spencer speaks of so personally has been described as vaccine apartheid, or vaccine nationalism. Wealthy nations, like the United States, the United Kingdom and European Union countries, contracted to buy billions of doses of prospective vaccines while they were still in development. Poorer nations, where 85 per cent of the world's population lives, are left scrambling, forced to wait for vaccine shipments from COVAX, the global cooperative vaccination facility coordinated by the World Health Organization.

Spencer notes that some rich countries have even bought up enough doses to vaccinate their population several times over.

"We can hold onto them and hoard them, or we can think about how we get other vulnerable populations around the world vaccinated. There are 59 million health-care workers in the world. We could take a very small proportion of the doses that we have ordered, and we could help coordinate a program…to get those most vulnerable people in the world vaccinated."

A key impediment to the mass vaccination of the global population is a supply shortage precipitated by greed. Most of the available vaccines have been developed by private, for-profit pharmaceutical corporations that hold patents on the vaccines, granting them monopoly control over the production of these life-saving drugs. They are guaranteed massive profits, despite having received billions of dollars in public subsidies for vaccine development.

This exploitation of the pandemic for profit is only possible with strictly enforced global treaties, primarily the World Trade Organization's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). India and South Africa are leading an effort for a temporary waiver of these WTO patent protections, which would allow private and public facilities around the world to mass produce vaccines and other related, patent-protected items, like syringes and PPE. The U.S., first under former president Donald Trump, but continuing under President Joe Biden, along with a handful of wealthy countries, have been blocking the waiver. A growing movement coordinated by the group Public Citizen is pressuring Biden to reverse this destructive policy.

"It would make all the difference in the world," Democratic Congressmember Jan Schakowsky of Illinois said on Democracy Now!

"We are spending billions of dollars to help our economy. All of that will be for naught of we cannot protect ourselves against this virus because we will not help the international community. There are hundreds of health-care and human rights organizations around the world that are pleading for this waiver to be approved. Nancy Pelosi, our Speaker of the House, has said that this is important for us to do, for ourselves. It is our own self-interest as well."

Schakowsky's point is vital: if one person in the world remains unprotected, we are all unprotected. The COVID-19 virus mutates rapidly. Highly contagious variants are spreading around the globe, including the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil variants, now joined by the New York City variant. If the virus is not contained globally, it will continue to mutate and spread through unprotected populations, potentially rendering our current crop of vaccines ineffective -- plunging the planet back into a catastrophic pandemic all over again.

"A pernicious form of vaccine apartheid has emerged…largely based on wealth and geography," Fatima Hassan, a South-African human rights campaigner who fought for access to live-saving HIV/AIDS drugs for poor countries, wrote this week in Foreign Policy. "The pandemic response should not have to rely on voluntary cooperation but urgent wartime measures, including compulsory ones."

The WTO is meeting in early March to debate the waiver. As it relies on consensus decision making, any single country can block it. Trillions of dollars in potential economic damage and millions of lives hang in the balance. The United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, with the highest number of COVID-19 deaths -- now over half a million -- should be leading the charge to share life-saving vaccines and treatments around the globe.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Democracy Now!

Image credit: Daniel Schludi/Unsplash

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