No One is Safe Until Everyone is Safe | Daily News

No One is Safe Until Everyone is Safe

Vaccine inequalities threaten the entire world:
The Coronavirus has engulfed the entire world.-Vaccines such as Pfizer’s mRNA vaccines were developed in record time.
The Coronavirus has engulfed the entire world.-Vaccines such as Pfizer’s mRNA vaccines were developed in record time.

The pandemic crisis did not allow India to accept the invitation to the G7 Summit that concluded at a pristine beach in Cornwall, England. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unavailability at the Summit reflects the reality of the world. Only the leaders of the rich G7 Nations (UK, USA, France, Japan, Italy, Germany, Canada plus the European Union) would be able to have talks without masks and have beach walks during a global pandemic.

The final communiqué of the summit is full of commitments and pledges, including vaccine donations, more funding for the COVAX facility and strengthening of the World Health Organization (WHO), among many others.

The WHO has indicated that the world needs 11 billion vaccines to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the global population. The G7 nations have pledged to provide one billion doses, of which half (500 million) comes from the United States. However, in the absence of a mechanism for sharing the knowhow behind the COVID-19 vaccines, it is unclear how to meet the vaccination targets.

When the COVID-19 outbreak signalled a devastating crisis in early 2020, the international community, including governments of developed economies and civil society organisations, responded to the crisis by prioritising vaccine development. The US alone diverted billions of dollars for vaccine research through its Operation Warp Speed.

As a result, currently, there are 17 COVID vaccines authorised for Emergency Use by at least one national regulatory body. One of the significant collective responses to fight COVID-19 has been developing the WHO COVAX facility that ensures equitable vaccine allocation with a target of around two billion doses for 92 of the world’s poorest countries. For COVAX, the WHO has partnered with the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) and the Centre for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

However, the limited vaccine supply is persisting, resulting in vast inequalities in vaccine distribution, presenting a significant challenge to achieve global population immunity. Unfortunately, COVAX has only managed to meet 4.1 percent of its target (just 83 million vaccines). These indicators raise questions and mirror the failing reality of the only global solution for equal distribution of COVID vaccines so far.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest economic and social crisis of a lifetime. In fact, it has been described as a once-in-century event, the last such pandemic having occurred exactly 100 years ago (the Spanish Flu, which killed 50 million people around the world). The developed countries have proved that the vaccines work well in bending COVID-19 curves. While some of them have started everyday life without many restrictions (for example, the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) recently mandated that fully vaccinated Americans can ditch the mask in most settings), a large part of the world is still battling the pandemic with no hope of normality any time soon.

As COVID-19 makes its rounds, giving rise to new variants and mutations, developing countries like Sri Lanka will continue to suffer from the pandemic. The waves do not seem to stop anytime sooner. As we look for solutions to end the pandemic, all attention rotates around the manufacture, availability and access to more and more vaccines, some of which are still in the Third Phase trial stage. The availability of vaccines remains a bottleneck impeding the progress and, therefore, the way out of the pandemic.

There can be many answers to the question, ‘Why there aren’t enough vaccines?’ However, an in-depth diagnosis of this problem reveals the insufficient manufacturing of vaccines as the root cause. Based on the above argument, the proposal by India and South Africa to the World Trade Organization (WTO) on waiving the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) comes as a ray of hope to address the vaccine shortage – especially in a time that global solutions are fragile, and the role of international organisations such as the WHO is overshadowed by the political agendas of the rich and powerful Western countries.

Unfortunately, the G7 Summit statement had not responded to the global demand on the TRIPs Waiver, which would allow scaling up vaccine production and addressing emerging variants. While the US and France supported this move, the UK and Germany opposed it, on the basis that it would harm the innovative streak of pharma companies. Thus Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) remains a significant limitation to manufacture more vaccines.

Further data is instrumental in reading the signs of the times:

Forty-five percent of all vaccine doses administered so far have gone to just 16 percent of the world population, who live in high-income countries. Why? Because they have bought a disproportionate share of early doses. (Source: Our World in Data)

As of June 12, 2021, Israel and the USA lead the vaccination programmes by vaccinating more than 50 percent of their populations (2+doses); meanwhile, Sri Lanka has managed only 2.2 percent, India 3.3 percent, the Philippines 1.5 percent and South Africa 0.81 percent. (Our World in Data)

At the same time, studies predict that the poorest 92 countries including Sri Lanka will not be able to vaccinate at least 60 percent of their population until 2023 or beyond. The current status of COVAX targets supports this argument.

 In this context, the TRIPs Waiver has enormous possibilities to let the world access more vaccines and recuperate from all the economic and social losses.

 The same governments that supported international structural responses, such as COVAX, failed to recognise the crisis as an emergency over their profits and short-term gains. The developed countries have hoarded vaccines as advanced purchases with closed eyes on the role of COVAX. The same countries announced last week at the G7 Summit that they are donating vaccines.

Taking far more vaccines than needed from those who deserved it and returning them does not make it a donation. Or can we term it ‘vaccine diplomacy a la China and India’?

Why was the Intellectual Property of the vaccines not addressed by the world leaders and organisations while creating global solutions for COVID-19? Was it purposely neglected so that the pharmaceutical giants are not disturbed and can ensure more than enough vaccines for the world’s powerful countries? When the TRIPs can be amended and waived in exceptional cases, why are a few countries hesitant to stop millions of people from dying and suffering?    

Temporarily waiving patent monopolies will not end all future innovations to develop vaccines and drugs. The proposal is specific on the COVID-19 vaccine and its related medications for a maximum of three years only. The cost analysis of OXFAM indicated that if the IP rights are waived, the people in all developing countries can be vaccinated at an estimated cost of just US$ 6.6 billion, which is a just a fraction of the combined defence budget of Western nations.

 In contrast, if the TRIPs waiver proposal never sees the light of day, the cost of vaccinating the population of low and middle-income countries could reach as much as US$ 80 billion. Rich countries and big pharma need to acknowledge that their inaction on vaccine equity will cost lives and their action will not incur any loss.   

 No economy is an island in this globalised and inter-connected world. The findings of the National Bureau of Economic Research in the United States confirm that if developing countries manage to vaccinate at least half of their population by mid-2021, the global economic loss will amount to US$ 4 trillion. On the other hand, the estimated global economic cost of not vaccinating the citizens of developing countries would be nearly US$ 9 trillion, most of which will have to be borne by the developed countries themselves.

Even after months of advocacy, the TRIPs waiver proposal has just managed to initiate the discussion on a text-based process. It is crucial that Sri Lanka more visibly supports the TRIPs Waiver through the country’s bilateral relationships and networks to demand the support of the world powers, including Japan and Singapore.

By now, it is clear that the current so-called collective structures are not sufficient to address the deadly COVID crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic had given the world the best opportunity to test the existing structures, which often are disconnected from reality. Any delay in addressing the root causes of the increasing COVID-19 deaths and infection rates indicates that global leaders are losing the opportunity to rewrite what works best for humanity.

It is high time to acknowledge that most of the regional structures, including the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the African Union (AU) and others, are weak. They tend to depend on the Global North and the politics of international organisations, World Trade Organization (WTO), G7 and powerful bilateral agreements across the world.

This pandemic is only the start of a much more deadly crisis. Furthermore, even more deadly pandemics could be around the corner if we do not address this one properly. Relying on and hoping that current structures will bring solutions to the pandemic will only result in collapsing economies, social systems and deaths of more people in countries such as India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. 

As most of the world struggles to convince the powerful countries of the need to vaccinate everyone, it is critical to innovate structural solutions based on trust, reciprocity, and collective action to address the global crises that will continue to come along.  After all, with a pandemic of this nature, No One is Safe Until Everyone is Safe.

(Meenuka Mathew is a teaching and research fellow at the School of Government and Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University, India.)

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