COVID-19 Vaccine Inequity Represents the ‘Complete Collapse of Global Solidarity’, World Economic Forum Told

The inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is the result of the “complete collapse of global co-operation and solidarity”, Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), told a panel on vaccine equity at the World Economic Forum on Tuesday.

“The moral failures that we witnessed over the last two years cannot be repeated in 2022,” he added.

“We have to remain optimistic in Africa that, as a continent, we should strive to get to the 70% [global vaccination] target, but we are on 10%. How do we get from 10% to 70%? We really have to bring all forces to bear to increase our global cooperation, partnership, solidarity and coordination to try to move from where we are to 70%, recognising that it is only through that massive coordinated efforts that we could all be safe.”

Nkengasong added that Omicron’s rapid spread had borne out predictions that global safety involved global vaccination.

“We’ve seen what Omicron has done. We all said this at the start: that if we did not protect and invest at speed, even those who have been vaccinated will be challenged. We truly don’t know what the next variant will look like and the only way to prevent other variants is to vaccinate at scale and that includes Africa.”

COVAX hit ‘barrier after barrier’

Seth Berkley CEO of Gavi, the vaccine alliance that manages COVAX, said that “the original plan was to have every high-risk person in the world vaccinated at the same time, and every health worker and then moving to low-risk people”.

“Of course, that’s not what happened,” said Berkely, noting that while COVAX had managed to deliver the first vaccine to a developing country 39 days after high-income countries, the vaccine platform then “hit barrier after barrier”.

“We had export bans, we had vaccine nationalism, we had companies not meeting their requirements to put doses forth,” said Berkley.

He also warned that delays had also fuelled vaccine hesitancy and complicated delivery.

“The good news is that, in general, developing countries actually appreciate vaccines more because they see the diseases and so the vaccine demand has always been higher, and vaccine hesitancy is actually been lower. But it’s more complicated at this point,” said Berkley.

More COVID deaths related to inequality than old age

Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International

Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International, told the WEF session that research showed “inequality is a higher predictor of COVID-19 deaths than age”.

“We have seen vaccine hoarding over and over again, and [governments protecting pharmaceutical monopolies”, said Bucher.

Oxfam published a report this week on COVID-related inequity, including that the wealth of the world’s 10 richest men has doubled since the pandemic began, while the incomes of 99% of humanity are worse off because of COVID-19.

Bucher said that lifting intellectual property rights from the beginning of the pandemic and allowing vaccines to be produced at scale across the world would have been “a game danger”.

“We would have avoided not only deaths directly from COVID but all the deaths that have been associated with growing inequality and crippled health systems across the world,” she added.

Breakdown of trust

Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergencies Programme, said that while COVID-19 would not be eliminated this year–  and SARS-CoV2 might never be eliminated – “we can end COVID as a public health emergency”. 

But, said Ryan, the global pandemic response system was not “fit for purpose” to end this or future pandemics.

“What is very clear is that the current mechanisms that are in place for the production of vaccines do not lead to the equitable distribution of these vaccines,” said Ryan.

“One of the most scarce commodities in this whole pandemic response has been trust: trust between communities and government, trust between countries, trust between manufacturers,” he added.

Serum Institute of India appeals to African countries to ‘get in touch’

Adar Poonawalla CEO of the Serum Institute of India (SII), said that his company had 1.5 billion vaccine doses in the past year, and “actually have to stop production in December because we had 500 million in stock”.

“Vaccine supply is no longer a constraint,” said Poonawalla. “We’ve supplied vaccines to the African continent and it supported over the last many decades. We are ready to support you again. Please get in touch.”

SII was supposed to be the key supplier for COVAX of a generic version of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but stopped its supply to attend to India’s domestic vaccine needs. This generated bad blood between the company and African countries.

However, according to Poonawalla, the SII will “probably supply a billion-plus doses in the first quarter of 2022 through COVAX to the African continent.”

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