COVID-19 vaccination disparity raises vexed questions of ethics and economics

A health worker administers a dose of the Oxford AstraZeneca COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at a walk-in vaccination centre in the Bab El-Oued district of Algeria's capital Algiers on June 7, 2021. (AFP)
A health worker administers a dose of the Oxford AstraZeneca COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at a walk-in vaccination centre in the Bab El-Oued district of Algeria's capital Algiers on June 7, 2021. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 10 June 2021

COVID-19 vaccination disparity raises vexed questions of ethics and economics

A health worker administers a dose of the Oxford AstraZeneca COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at a walk-in vaccination centre in the Bab El-Oued district of Algeria's capital Algiers on June 7, 2021. (AFP)
  • Pandemic unlikely to be considered over until a suitably large proportion of the world’s population is vaccinated
  • Provision of vaccines to the developing world viewed as both a humanitarian imperative and an economic necessity

BERNE: How vaccines can be fairly distributed to the global population is a question that has vexed world leaders and international agencies since the first shots offering protection against the coronavirus disease became available at the end of last year.

The issue was high on the agenda of the recent World Health Organization (WHO) general assembly, and the G7 heads of state are bound to further ponder the matter when they meet face to face in a Cornish resort in the UK this weekend.

Until a suitably large proportion of the world’s population is vaccinated against COVID-19, the pandemic cannot be considered over.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general, recently urged countries to commit to vaccinating at least 10 percent of their populations by September and 30 percent by the end of the year.

Stepping up the global vaccination drive could benefit economies across the board. The International Monetary Fund recently predicted that a successful vaccination program, funded with $50 billion, could add as much as $9 trillion to the global economy by 2025.

It is with this in mind that world leaders view the provision of vaccines to the developing world as not just a humanitarian imperative but also an economic necessity.

There are also the practicalities of such a mammoth undertaking to be considered.

According to Our World in Data, a research tool compiled by analysts at the University of Oxford’s Global Change Data Lab, 63 percent of Israelis, 60 percent of Britons, and 52 percent of Americans had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of June 6.

By contrast, in the world’s emerging economies, just 23 percent of Brazilians and 13 percent of Indians have had their first jab, while the average throughout Africa was lower than 2 percent.




Until a suitably large proportion of the world’s population is vaccinated against COVID-19, the pandemic cannot be considered over. (AFP/File Photo)

Similarly, while most countries in the developed world have ordered enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations several times over, just 0.4 percent of shots have been administered in low-income countries, according to the WHO.

The question now is how to put right this shocking imbalance.

One option is COVAX, an initiative designed more than a year ago to address the issue of equitable vaccine distribution to low-income nations. It is led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a public-private partnership with the WHO.

World leaders have made numerous pledges to help developing countries inoculate their people. On May 21, Italy chaired a world health summit that culminated in the Rome Declaration, setting out the guiding principles for the fair distribution of vaccines.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged $1.2 billion to the effort, while China has said it will give $3 billion over the next three years. France has offered 500 million euros ($608 million) to the G20’s Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator and 30 million doses, while the US has promised to share its excess doses with poorer countries.

On June 2, Japan and Gavi hosted a joint virtual summit, which raised $2.4 billion in support of vaccination efforts in low-income countries. Belgium, Denmark, Japan, Sweden, and Spain have also earmarked 54 million of their excess doses for shipment to poorer nations.

THENUMBER

* 250 million - Additional doses needed to vaccinate 10% of the population of every country by September, 30% by year end.

Although well meaning, all of these efforts have fallen short. Gavi has so far shipped more than 77 million doses to 127 countries. Compare that with the 2 billion-plus doses the US and the EU had on order as of March – for a combined population of just under 800 million.

No wonder the modus by which these vaccines have been shared has come under close scrutiny.

India and South Africa have proposed a waiver on the patents for COVID-19 vaccines so they can be produced more affordably and where they are most needed.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said American President Joe Biden’s administration would support such a dialogue on the waiving of patent rights through the World Trade Organization (WTO). Since the US has long been a staunch defender of intellectual property rights, this about-face came as something of a surprise.




Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Vaccine sharing, strengthening the WHO and adopting a pandemic treaty were among proposals from world leaders on May 24, 2021 on how to halt the Covid-19 pandemic and prevent future health catastrophes. (AFP/File Photo)

Pharmaceutical firms, including those in Europe and Japan, are not fond of the idea, although the EU has expressed an interest, as has China. The proposal also has the backing of WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former World Bank vice president, Nigerian finance minister, and outgoing chair of Gavi.

Despite its political appeal, the WTO route would not be quick or easy, as any resolution would require unanimous approval. Furthermore, any such resolution would go against the agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights.

This week the WTO will discuss an alternative EU proposal, which envisions a compulsory licensing process involving a (minimal) fee.

Patent waivers for vaccines throw up all sorts of questions including whether there can be such a thing as intellectual property for an international public good, or if the inventor of an international public good deserves compensation. The EU licensing proposal is a cause for similar concern in regard to intellectual property rights.

These are not just moral questions; they are a matter of economics, which could influence the willingness of the private sector to contribute to the development of solutions to global problems well beyond the scope of the current pandemic.

While world powers debate the finer points of capitalism, the search for a better vaccine distribution framework continues. Vaccine production has been ramped up considerably, with 250 million doses dispatched just last week.




Men wait to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in Dubai on February 8, 2021. The UAE one of the best vaccination rates per capita in the world, second only to Israel. (AFP/File Photo)

A Bloomberg report says that an additional 6 billion doses are expected to be distributed by the end of the year. Pfizer has assured poorer countries of 1 billion doses in 2022. Moderna and other vaccine manufacturers have made similar pledges.

This just goes to show that the pharmaceutical industry is aware of what is at stake for global public health as well as for their business models.

That said, the success of a global vaccination drive will depend on factors other than just intellectual-property rights, with the condition of local governance and infrastructure being just two of them.

There is also a geopolitical dimension. China and Russia may well support India and South Africa in their quest to get patents lifted on COVID-19 vaccines because Moscow and Beijing have been using their own vaccines to further their geopolitical clout, particularly in poorer countries, by exerting their grip over their domestic private sectors.

In the US, the Biden administration’s willingness to engage in the patent debate plays well with the left-wing of the Democratic party. However, major lobbying efforts are expected from the biotech and pharmaceutical industries to stave off such a waiver.

In free-market economies, incentives come in the form of compensation, which drives the behaviors of companies and investors alike. Firms that are starved of investment do not have the capital to fund research unless it is part of a national imperative. This is particularly pronounced in the defense industry.

The rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines in under a year was largely driven and funded by private companies and capital. A lot will depend on the outcome of the WTO discussion, as it may well determine the viability of the pharma industry as a private enterprise and shape the future of public-private partnerships.

---------------------

  • Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources

 

 


UK firm creates monitor that detects COVID-19 in 15 minutes

UK firm creates monitor that detects COVID-19 in 15 minutes
Updated 7 min 40 sec ago

UK firm creates monitor that detects COVID-19 in 15 minutes

UK firm creates monitor that detects COVID-19 in 15 minutes
  • Ceiling-mounted gadget 98-100% accurate after early rounds of testing
  • ‘Covid alarm’ can even detect virus in asymptomatic people

LONDON: A team of British scientists has created a monitor that can detect COVID-19 infections in a room within 15 minutes.

The ceiling-mounted “Covid alarm,” created by Cambridge-based developer Roboscientific, detects chemicals secreted by the skin or found on the breath of people with the virus called “volatile organic compounds,” which scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and Durham University said creates an “odor fingerprint” that could be identified by the device with 98-100 percent accuracy.

The scientists, whose work has yet to be peer-reviewed, stressed that more studies are needed, but initial analysis from 54 samples has been enough to prompt funding interest in further testing from the UK Department of Health and Social Care.

The monitor can apparently differentiate between COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases, and can even detect the virus accurately in asymptomatic people, making it even more accurate than polymerase chain reaction tests.

The breakthrough could prove invaluable in the future of testing for COVID-19, and with modification, for other diseases as well.

The device can be installed in all sorts of environments, from schools to hospitals and aircraft cabins, and can send results instantly to computers and mobile phones.

At £5,000 ($7,050) per monitor, it may also prove more economically viable than frequent disposable testing.

Prof. James Logan, head of the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM, said trials could be completed by the end of 2021.

“The fact that devices already exist that we can use will really speed this up. These results are really promising, and demonstrate the potential for using this technology as a rapid, non-invasive test with incredible accuracy,” he added.

“If these devices are successfully developed for use in public places, they could be affordably and easily scaled up.”

Roboscientific, which is also developing a handheld monitor for use on individuals and with a results turnaround time of just two minutes, first developed the technology six years ago to detect infections in farm animals.

It proved so accurate that it was able to detect single cases of salmonella or campylobacter in chicken barns of up to 50,000 birds.


Partying youths defy Paris police for third night running

Partying youths defy Paris police for third night running
Updated 13 June 2021

Partying youths defy Paris police for third night running

Partying youths defy Paris police for third night running
  • Officials have urged people to continue respecting social distancing limits as the country emerges from its third COVID-19 lockdown

PARIS: Paris police said Sunday that three people were detained after officers used tear gas to disperse hundreds of youths gathered for a street party in defiance of COVID-19 social distancing limits and an 11:00 p.m. curfew.
The so-called Project X gatherings, a reference to an American film from 2012, on the vast lawns in front of the Invalides war museum on Saturday was the third since Thursday.
Videos on social media showed largely maskless youths surrounding a car and then climbing and jumping on its roof, while others bombarded police vans with bottles.
Other parties were broken up in the Tuileries gardens near the Louvre and on the banks of the Seine River, police said, as people enjoying warm evenings outside found it difficult to respect the coronavirus curfew.
Many bars across the city remained open after 11:00 p.m. over the weekend, the first since the curfew was pushed back from 9:00 p.m. last Wednesday, according to AFP reporters.
“We had our ‘bac’ [high school exit exam] this year and we really needed to let loose,” said Cedric, 17, who came with friends from the nearby 15th district of the capital.
Officials have urged people to continue respecting social distancing limits as the country emerges from its third COVID-19 lockdown.
Since Wednesday, bars and restaurants are allowed to serve patrons indoors for the first time since October, and the government plans to drop the nationwide curfew entirely on June 30.
Health authorities reported 3,972 new cases over the previous 24 hours on Saturday, while the number of patients in intensive care fell to 2,110, far below the peak of nearly 6,000 during the third wave of cases that began in March.
Thirty-four deaths were reported, bringing the French total to 110,407.


Gas explosion in China kills 11, rescue operation ongoing

Gas explosion in China kills 11, rescue operation ongoing
Updated 13 June 2021

Gas explosion in China kills 11, rescue operation ongoing

Gas explosion in China kills 11, rescue operation ongoing
  • Rescue efforts were continuing, a statement by the government in Shiyan city said
BEIJING: At least 11 people were killed and 37 others seriously injured when a gas line explosion ripped through a residential compound in central China’s Hubei province on Sunday, local officials said.
Rescue efforts were continuing, a statement by the government in Shiyan city said, adding at least 144 people were pulled from a badly damaged market building.

As summit ends, G-7 urged to deliver on vaccines, climate

As summit ends, G-7 urged to deliver on vaccines, climate
Updated 13 June 2021

As summit ends, G-7 urged to deliver on vaccines, climate

As summit ends, G-7 urged to deliver on vaccines, climate
  • Uncertain how firm the group’s commitments will be on coronavirus vaccines
  • Leaders mingled with Queen Elizabeth II at a royal reception on their first evening

FALMOUTH, England: The Group of Seven leaders aim to end their first summit in two years with a punchy set of promises Sunday, including vaccinating the world against coronavirus, making huge corporations pay their fair share of taxes and tackling climate change with a blend of technology and money.
They want to show that international cooperation is back after the upheavals caused both by the pandemic and the unpredictability of former US President Donald Trump. And they want to convey that the club of wealthy democracies — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — is a better friend to poorer nations than authoritarian rivals such as China.
But it was uncertain how firm the group’s commitments will be on coronavirus vaccines, the economy and the environment when the leaders issue their final communique. Also unclear was whether all of the leaders would back the United States’ call to chastise China for repressing its Uyghur minority and other abuses.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the summit’s host, wanted the three-day meeting to fly the flag for a “Global Britain,” his government’s initiative to give the midsized country outsized influence when it comes to global problem-solving.
Brexit cast a shadow over that goal during the summit on the coast of southwest England. European Union leaders and US President Joe Biden voiced concerns about problems with new UK-EU trade rules that have heightened tensions in Northern Ireland.
But overall, the mood has been positive: The leaders smiled for the cameras on the beach at cliff-fringed Carbis Bay, a village and resort that became a traffic-clogged fortress for the meeting. The last G-7 summit was in France in 2019. The pandemic scuttled the planned 2020 event in the United States.
The leaders mingled with Queen Elizabeth II at a royal reception on their first evening, and were served steak and lobster at a beach barbecue on their second.
America’s allies were visibly relieved to have the US back as an engaged international player after the “America First” policy of the Trump administration.
“The United States is back, and democracies of the world are standing together,” Biden said as he arrived in the UK on the first foreign trip of his 5-month-old presidency. After the G-7 summit, the president is to have tea with the queen on Sunday, attend a NATO summit in Brussels on Monday and hold talks with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday.
At the G-7, Johnson described Biden as a “breath of fresh air.” French President Emmanuel Macron, after speaking one-to-one with Biden, said, “It’s great to have a US president part of the club and very willing to cooperate.”
The re-energized G-7 made ambitious declarations during their meetings about girls’ education, preventing future pandemics and using the finance system to fund green growth. Above all, they vowed to share vaccine doses with less well-off nations that urgently need them. Johnson said the group would pledge at least 1 billion doses, with half that coming from the United States and 100 million from Britain.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus commended the vaccine pledge but said it’s not enough. To truly end the pandemic, he said, 11 billion doses are needed to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the world’s population by the middle of next year.
“We need more and we need them faster,” Tedros said.
Public health advocates said much more than just doses was needed, including money and logistical help to get shots into the arms of people in poorer countries.
“It’s not enough to just get vaccines flown into capitals,” said Lily Caprani, head of COVID-19 vaccines advocacy for UNICEF. “We can’t let them potentially go to waste or be at risk or be at risk of not being delivered. So it’s a real end-to-end solution that’s needed.”
The leaders’ final communique is expected to formally embrace placing a global minimum tax of at least 15 percent on large multinational companies to stop corporations from using tax havens to shift profits and to avoid taxes.


Canada pays final homage to Muslim family killed in terror attack

Canada pays final homage to Muslim family killed in terror attack
Updated 13 June 2021

Canada pays final homage to Muslim family killed in terror attack

Canada pays final homage to Muslim family killed in terror attack
  • Canadian PM Trudeau called the killings a “terrorist attack” and vowed to clamp down on far-right groups and online hate
  • The four victims were killed by Nathaniel Veltman while they were out for an evening walk near their home in London, Ontario

LONDON, Canada: Several hundred people gathered in London, Ontario on Saturday to pay homage to a Muslim family deliberately mowed down by the driver of a pick-up truck, in an attack that has shocked Canadians and which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denounced as “terrorist.”
Four members of the Afzaal family — a man and his wife, their teenage daughter and his mother — were out for a walk in their London neighborhood Sunday when a 20-year-old man in a black pickup truck drove into them on purpose, according to authorities.
A fifth family member, a nine-year-old boy, was seriously injured.
On Saturday, hundreds of people filled a large parking lot and a football field next to the London Islamic center, where a private ceremony was held, to join in a public remembrance around the family’s four caskets, each covered with a Canadian flag.
“The very fact that their coffins are draped in the beautiful Canadian flag is a testimony of the fact that the entire Canadian nation stands with them,” Pakistan’s ambassador to Canada, Raza Bashir Tarar, told the crowd.
The ceremony, with brief remarks and prayers, was broadcast live on major Canadian networks.
“We are not alone in our grief,” said Ali Islam, an uncle of Madiha Salman, one of the victims. He stressed that the outpouring of support “has been the first step toward finding a way to heal.”
“We realized that our extended family was much larger than we could have ever imagined.”
Another speaker at the event, Sajid Ali Mohamed, noted that the attack on the Muslim family has been described as terrorism, instead of being blamed on mental illness.
“If it’s not a turning point, at least it’s a nudge in the right direction,” he said.

Pallbearers arrange the caskets at a funeral service for the terror attack victims in London, Ontario, on June 12, 2021. (Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press via AP)

The funeral cortege then headed to a cemetery — as people lined the route in a show of solidarity — for the private burial of Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha, 44, their daughter Yumna, 15 and Salman’s mother Talat, 74.
Many people wore either green ribbons, in support of the Muslim community, or mauve ones, Yumna’s favorite color.The attack has badly shaken the Muslim community and other Canadians as well.
Numerous vigils and solemn commemorations have taken place across Canada in recent days.
On Friday, several thousand people joined in an ecumenical walk through the streets of London, which is home to some 30,000 Muslims.
Many bore posters reading “We are all human” or “Hate kills.”
People also paid homage Friday in Quebec City, where a January 2017 mosque shooting claimed six lives.
The latest attack has fueled debate about the prevalence of Islamophobia in Canada and, within the Muslim community heightened fears that outward signs of religious affiliation can make a person a target.
In an interview with the CBC network, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said the attack had shocked people across Pakistan.
He called on the international community to take action against “hate websites which create hatred among human beings.”
“Some international leaders, or leaders in the Western countries, actually don’t understand this phenomenon,” he added in excerpts of the interview released ahead of its broadcast on Sunday.
Twenty-year-old Nathaniel Veltman, who has no criminal record and no known link to any extremist group, has been charged in the attack with four counts of first-degree murder and one of attempted murder.
Police say the attack was planned and motivated by hatred, and have not ruled out adding terrorism-related charges.
Trudeau has promised to step up the fight against extremist groups.
Following the attack, Canadian deputies adopted a nonbinding resolution, introduced by the left-leaning New Democratic Party, calling for a national summit on Islamophobia this summer — as many Canadian Muslim organizations have demanded.