NEW YORK: Leaders and trailblazers from the political, corporate and medical worlds gathered at a high-profile event in New York on Tuesday to contemplate the future of medicine and push for equitable, forward-thinking solutions to the world’s health challenges, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic.
To quickly turn the tide against the pandemic, rich countries should waive the intellectual property rights they hold over COVID-19 vaccines, speakers — including the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo — told attendees at the Future Investment Initiative Institute’s “Health is Wealth” roundtable.
The event, attended by Arab News and timed to coincide with the UN General Assembly, convened world leaders, experts and figureheads for a series of panels with one goal in mind: Driving tangible solutions to challenges facing the global health system.
DRC President Felix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo told attendees at the Saudi-based non-profit’s event that Africa’s vaccine shortage is of “high importance” to the world.
He offered a radical solution that he said would help to turn the tide against the spread of COVID-19 worldwide: “Rich countries have the moral obligation to transfer the technologies and lift all patents that hold us from using (the vaccine) — that’s the only way we can manage global immunity.”
Vaccines must be considered a “common good” for the world, he said, adding that less than 3 percent of Africans have been fully inoculated against COVID-19.
Tshilombo said addressing this vaccine deficiency is one of the “main pillars” of his tenure as current president of the African Union.
Unlike Africa, the US has been able to mobilize its immense wealth to implement a world-leading campaign that has seen hundreds of millions of Americans fully vaccinated.
Bechara Choucair, the Biden administration’s vaccination coordinator, told attendees that jabs are returning an element of normalcy to American life, so “we have to make sure they’re widely available.”
This vaccination effort expands beyond US borders, he said, adding: “We know this virus doesn’t respect any boundaries. We’re proud to have donated nearly 150 million vaccines to over 90 countries — more than all other countries combined.
“And we’ve started to ship another 500 million vaccines to 100 lower-income countries in need of vaccines.”
The Biden administration has previously also expressed support for a relaxation of intellectual property rights surrounding COVID-19 vaccines.
Tuesday’s event also saw the FII Institute launch its Global Infectious Disease Index. It is a “unique tool that captures both endemic and epidemic disease” across 204 countries and territories, said Safiye Kucukarraca, director of strategic partnerships at the institute.
The index focuses on five global endemic diseases: HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, lower respiratory diseases and viral diseases.
The tool “reflects the readiness and vulnerability of medical systems,” and the data produced will be used to “inform health ministries worldwide about the gaps that need be filled to tackle endemic and emerging epidemics,” Kucukarraca said.
Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, founder of Bangladeshi community bank Grameen Bank, said the global health system is “dysfunctional,” pointing to how despite promises of multilateral solutions at the start of the pandemic, countries quickly became “isolated islands” in their responses.
He reiterated Tshilombo’s call for rich countries to relinquish their intellectual property rights over COVID-19 vaccines, and said the US has now backed that initiative.
Yunus singled out German resistance to the idea — which requires a global consensus — as a major obstacle to its implementation.
Looking to the future, he warned of a world of “global warming, wealth concentration and massive unemployment created by wealth concentration” if there is no change in course.
But he said the pandemic, for all its ills, has given people a chance to pause, reflect, and push for the creation of a new world characterized by “zero net carbon emissions, zero wealth concentration and zero unemployment.” This, he added, could be achieved by “unleashing the entrepreneurship of the people.”