Profiteering in pandemic leads to glaring vaccine inequity
Three globally-respected organizations, the UN, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Red Cross, on Monday highlighted the issue of an unequal battle against coronavirus (COVID-19) being waged across the world as a glaring vaccine inequity has cropped up, especially between the rich and poor nations.
The WHO reminded the world, especially the rich nations, that the COVID-19 pandemic will not end anywhere in the world unless it is stamped out everywhere. Both the UN and the Red Cross called on the rich nations and pharmaceutical giants of the world to take urgent steps to remove a vaccine inequity that is not only endangering the progress in the battle against the deadly virus but also putting at grave risk the lives of hundreds of millions in poor nations who had not yet been vaccinated.
Indeed, the gap between the rich and poor nations in vaccinations is not only huge but increasing every passing day. Since the vaccines became available toward the end of last year, rich nations have managed to vaccinate a good chunk of their populations. At the same time, poorer nations are still waiting to start or have just begun vaccinating their people. The gap could not be more inequitable, using any standard.
On May 12, for instance, while the US had injected more than 264 million doses and the UK about 55 million doses, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had been able to administer only 8,446 doses and the Central African Republic (CAR) fared even worse with a mere 647 doses. There are at least a dozen countries in Africa where vaccination has not even begun or from where there is not any data available.
On a per-capita basis, the gap is sharper. While more than 54 percent of the UK and 47 percent of the US have received at least one dose, in the CAR it is 0.01 percent while the DRC is at 0.009 percent. The performance of bigger and stronger economies in Africa or Asia is hardly any better. South Africa is still struggling at 0.8 percent and India, the global powerhouse of vaccine manufacturing is struggling with 10.4 percent of its population having received at least one dose.
Unfortunately for the countries left behind in the vaccination drive, a significant change in fortunes does not seem to be around the corner as the pandemic has taken hold in diverse parts of the world. Both India and Argentina recorded their single-day highest death toll on Tuesday.
For the low- and middle-income nations, the vaccines still seem to be a long way off especially as the rich and mighty nations have cornered not just the vaccines produced so far, but even a large majority of those that will be produced over the next three months
Ranvir S. Nayar
For the low- and middle-income nations, the vaccines still seem to be a long way off especially as the rich and mighty nations have cornered not just the vaccines produced so far, but even a large majority of those that will be produced over the next three months.
So far, most of the poorer nations, notably those in Africa, have been solely dependent upon the Covax program of the WHO and a handful of charitable organizations that are supplying vaccines around the world. The WHO has set a target of supplying 2 billion doses this year, but it has fallen off the pace as a third of the year has passed by. On Tuesday, the WHO said only 65 million doses had been delivered so far and warned of a shortfall of 190 million doses by the end of June.
At this rate, with India obliged to first cater to its own needs, Covax is certain to widely miss the target for the year. It is time for the global community to take drastic measures to boost production around the world and also make vaccines affordable for countries and people.
One of the fastest ways to boost the production of vaccines is to open new factories in every part of the world so that not much time is lost in logistics and distribution. For this, it is time for the governments to invoke the emergency clause that exists in the World Trade Organization rules and oblige the pharmaceutical companies to share the know-how behind the vaccines with local pharmaceutical companies that have adequate capacity.
In this, the rich nations need to play a key role as their governments can force local vaccine makers to share the technology with other countries. Their intervention will make the process faster. Here, it is encouraging to see that the US, the capital of capitalism in the world, has taken the lead and agreed to revoke patent protection for its own vaccine makers, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.
It is unfortunate to see that the European Union, which has traditionally been more socially responsible as an international player, has been dragging its feet on the issue, even as millions of lives are at stake. The reasons behind the reluctance are difficult to comprehend. The development of COVID-19 vaccines has been unlike any other drug discovery in the world.
In a normal process, a company would spend billions of dollars doing years of research and development, followed by years of testing, and only when the drug regulators are satisfied with the safety and efficacy of the drug is it allowed to be manufactured. In the entire process, the risk is borne totally by the company and huge sums are involved in the development of each drug.
But in the case of COVID-19 vaccines, the process was turned on its head. Most companies that got into the development had billions of dollars in the communal pot as governments had made advance purchases, with many billions more in the pipeline as the rich nation governments ordered enough to vaccinate their entire population at least twice over. The drug regulators also fast-tracked approvals, despite the short timelines of tests and clinical trials, as it was deemed to be a global medical emergency.
As the drug makers did not carry any significant risk, they should not be worried about sharing the rewards. The global community needs to respond to COVID-19 and its various strains with the same alacrity as the virus has engulfed the world. Only when vaccine inequity is addressed, can the world and everyone be safe.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is the managing editor of Media India Group.