Activist countries

Blaming rich countries for Omicron’s impasse

Big pharma and Northern leaders have left poor countries vulnerable to the most contagious variant of COVID yet.

AAs the world prepares for the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant of COVID-19, more than a few questions remain unanswered. To what extent will reduced immunity from vaccines make people vulnerable to serious illness? Could these things get worse in the future, with more variants to come?

What omicron requires in terms of mitigation strategies, as well as the threat posed to those vaccinated, is up for debate. Here’s what’s not: No matter how you slice the data, it’s extremely safer to be vaccinated than not, and it’s best to live in communities with as much immunity as possible. . But billions of people around the world are facing the most contagious variant yet without the protection provided by a vaccine.

While in many wealthy countries a largely politicized vaccine hesitancy seemed to put a ceiling on vaccination rates, vaccination campaigns in poorer countries have been much more hampered by a lack of continued access, reflecting a persistent failure on the part of the United States. and peer countries to take the necessary steps to get shot around the world. It is absolutely urgent that we do so.

About 57% of planet Earth’s population has now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but those doses have been disgracefully and unevenly distributed: while the United States, Canada, China, Western Europe and many countries in Asia have vaccination rates well over 70%, the poorest countries have vaccinated only about 6% of their population on average. As of fall, more than 50 countries have missed the World Health Organization’s goal for every state to vaccinate at least 10% of its people; now several dozen are not on track to cross a 40% threshold by the end of this year.

Pharmaceutical benefits

While there are many reasons for these disparities — including, in some cases, the same vaccine hesitancy that plagues wealthier countries — the shortfall essentially boils down to an outsized deference to profits. pharmaceuticals. Private companies retain both the intellectual property rights, or IP, that gave rise to the vaccines and the technological know-how to produce them in large quantities, making it impossible to simply manufacture enough doses to supply them to all. those who need it. Widespread demands to blow up vaccine patents – which would require a waiver of World Trade Organization rules – were eventually taken up by President Joe Biden in May. But between fervent opposition from Angela Merkel and Biden’s failure to subsequently respond to this impasse with forceful arguments, the momentum in this direction seems to have stalled.

There is a certain kind of smug expert who repeatedly overshadows activists’ focus on relaxing intellectual property protections, saying the real limitation is manufacturing capacity, not licences. While breaking patents certainly doesn’t magically create vaccine equity, the claim that insufficient manufacturing capacity is what’s holding back the global vaccine effort – rather than not having a recipe reliable open-source vaccine at your fingertips – is misleading at best. In a recent survey, The New York Times identified 10 major facilities that could eventually be used to mass-produce doses, and which almost certainly could have done so for months if the necessary technical secrets had been disseminated in accordance with health needs. public rather than endless buckraking. The wealthiest governments on the planet—those who both heavily funded vaccine development and placed the massive orders that made these vaccines the most profitable pharmaceuticals in history—surely could have used their power and their resources to expand manufacturing capacity to increase availability as quickly as possible, earning the goodwill of the world along the way. Surprisingly, they didn’t. Instead, they’ve essentially tried to navigate their way out of the increasingly unsavory optics of vaccine apartheid through charitable efforts: donating doses through the United Nations’ Covax program on a relatively disjointed ad hoc basis.

Vaccination efforts

But Covax has been a colossal failure, getting less than a billion vaccines to low-income countries, less than 50% of its goal. And not having a constant, increased supply on hand seriously hampers vaccination efforts: Donated doses are harder to move and only really end up in needed hands on the rare occasion when a sudden surge of goodwill erupts unexpectedly. This makes it nearly impossible for the countries that need the vaccines most to execute a release plan, which in turn leads to considerable waste. This week alone, Europe sent Nigeria a million doses of AstraZeneca that were so close to their expiry date that they were found to be unusable. What’s the point of a vaccination program that does little more than force developing countries to mediate between giant pharmaceutical corporations and the trash?

Rich countries have conspired to protect commercial interests by insisting that the best way to deliver vaccines to residents of poor countries is not to suspend intellectual property protection and build manufacturing capacity, but that rich countries

Vaccination campaign

simply handing over their cast-offs – a ridiculously inadequate plan whose goals they failed to even achieve halfway through. Meanwhile, far beyond the time even Big Pharma’s estimates suggested manufacturing facilities would need to run their vaccine operations have passed since they declared it unfeasible. And wealthy countries that have sided with the industry continue to order more and more booster shipments for healthy people, further diverting supplies they never should have limited in the first place.

To get ahead of the smug op-eds who are plotting sequels to their “Intellectual Property Law Won’t Solve Vaccine Inequality”—takes from earlier this year: It’s true that no measure will instantly displace shots in the world. But what is needed is a massive international commitment to this task, backed by billions of dollars and the policy changes needed for seed manufacturing capabilities across the South so they can produce enough of vaccines to protect against the current pandemic and guard against future variants – and possibly even future diseases.

Two years into this pandemic, we have established beyond a shadow of a doubt that public health emergencies demand a vigorous public sector response. Only governments can pour billions into research, implement mitigation policies, mobilize resources for support and survival, and coordinate institutional responses. Too often they do it wrong because they can’t bring themselves to go against the interests of private business. As for vaccines, they should. And for so many other things too.

(Natalie Shure is a writer and researcher in Boston. Her work focuses on history, health, and politics).

– The New Republic