Supplying COVID-19 vaccines: Shared responsibility

Friday, 2021-06-11 18:10:11
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Vaccines distributed via the COVAX mechanism to the airport in Mogadishu, Somalia, in March 2021. (Photo: AP)
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NDO - World Trade Organisation (WTO) members have agreed to start formal negotiations on a plan to boost COVID-19 vaccine supply to developing countries.

In the context of conflicting opinions surrounding the exemption of intellectual property (IP) rights for COVID-19 vaccines, sharing the vaccines of the richer countries with poor countries is considered an "emergency medicine" to help close the global immunisation gap.

Until now, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread with many new strains of the virus, vaccines are still considered "the key" to prevent the spread of the disease. The world has reached a vaccination milestone, with 2 billion total doses now administered, but 37% of these are carried out in high-income countries, accounting for 16% of the global population. Just 0.3% have been administered in the 29 lowest-income countries, home to 9% of the world’s population.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that a shortfall in COVID-19 vaccine doses going through the COVAX mechanism in June and July could undermine the efficiency of the global vaccination campaign. Up to now, more than 80 million doses of the vaccine have been delivered to 129 countries and territories around the world, but the world needs an additional 250 million doses by September to meet the target of at least 10% of the populations in every country vaccinated by the end of September and 30% by year-end.

WTO negotiations on an initiative by India and South Africa related to the the issue of a temporary waiver for IP rights on COVID-19 vaccines have just taken place in Switzerland, in order to allow any country to produce vaccines without worrying about patents. However, the negotiating parties remain divided on this issue. Advocates, including the US, argue that this helps increase vaccine production in developing countries. However, large pharmaceutical companies have resisted, arguing that a waiver would not boost production and could undermine future research and development on vaccines and therapeutics.

WTO members agreed to begin discussions on June 17 to determine the format of negotiations and to produce a report outlining their progress on the vaccine supply plan.

While mechanisms to increase vaccine supply continue to be discussed, the urgent issue now is the world needs to act quickly to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine more equitably and effectively, in the context of people in many places, especially in poor countries, not knowing when they will have access to them.

Many famous figures who are goodwill ambassadors of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) recently signed an open letter to the Summit of the Group of Industrialised Countries (G7) to urge G7 countries to urgently share the Covid-19 vaccine to other countries.

Currently, there is a paradox in that rich countries are anxious to not destroy expired vaccines, while many poor countries are still waiting for vaccines.

UNICEF warns that millions of doses of vaccine could be wasted if rich countries send surplus vaccines to poor countries at the same time, so the supply of vaccines must be coordinated evenly throughout the year.

Meanwhile, even in countries with a shortage of vaccines, people do not want to get vaccinated using vaccines that are almost out of date.

The international community is waiting for official voices from the rich countries in terms of fulfilling the sharing vaccines, especially in the context of US media reports that the administration of President Joe Biden plans to buy 500 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine to distribute to other countries and will announce this plan at the G7 Conference in the UK.

Recently, US President Biden also announced a plan to share the first 25 million COVID-19 vaccine doses with the rest of the world and an overall framework of distributing at least 80 million doses by the end of June.

At least 75% of these donated vaccines will be shared with the COVAX global vaccination programme, with priority given to Latin America and the Caribbean, South Asia and Southeast Asia, and Africa. This vaccine-sharing plan is an important part of the US' joint global strategy to lead the world in the fight against COVID-19, the White House said. President Biden also pledged that the US would be "an arsenal of vaccines for the world" to fight COVID-19.

Health ministers of the G7 countries also affirmed their support for the idea of sharing vaccines when domestic situations permit.

The commitment of rich countries to contribute 150 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to the COVAX mechanism is considered a good start for global "vaccine coverage" efforts.

According to UNICEF, G7 countries will soon collect 150 million vaccine doses, equivalent to 20% of their total vaccines, to support other countries in the period from June to August without affecting the immunisation schedule for adults in vaccine-producing countries.

Financial organisations and international organisations continue to call on rich countries to increase their contributions to the worldwide supply of COVID-19 vaccines, in order to be able to put an end to the pandemic soon.