Bridging the vaccine divide
These are heart-wrenching days for all of us with an eye on global events. We are witnessing a shocking gulf widen between those with access to COVID vaccines and those without. WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus has called it grotesque. Looking at the figures, it’s hard to disagree.
The contrast is astounding. While a handful of countries celebrate, re-open, and reunite with loved ones, the rest of the world waits, watches, and suffers. This as the WHO reported more COVID cases in the past fortnight than in the first six months of the pandemic. Let that sink in for a second. The pandemic is far from over.
It’s the details of this imbalance that affect me most. New York is impatient to return to Broadway, meanwhile the African Union’s health chief looks in horror to India, fearing his continent could soon also see makeshift crematoria, overflowing ICUs, and patients struggling to breathe on the street. Grotesque indeed.
So why the glaring difference? Vaccines, of course. Of more than 1 billion doses administered so far, the WHO says just 0.3% have reached the world’s poorest nations, where just 1 in 500 people have received a shot. In many wealthier countries, it’s more like 1 in 4.
The scale of global vaccine inequity right now is truly eye-watering. Some countries are now so awash with doses they are entering the final stage of their vaccination campaigns, pivoting to the thorny task of persuading the reluctant to get vaccinated.
Vaccine hesitancy is a serious and urgent problem. But for most of the world it is still a luxury one. Most countries aren’t yet close to having vaccinated their elderly, their front-line workers, their sick. For them, enticing the young and healthy to protect themselves and their communities is still a far-off dream.
This is a dark time globally, but there are some pinpricks of light. UN General Secretary António Guterres warmly welcomed the US move to support a proposal to waive patents on COVID vaccines. If adopted globally, it would mark a historic breakthrough in our common fight against the pandemic.
But this alone likely won’t be enough to end it. To do that we have to share so much more. We must share expertise and technology to manufacture vaccines. We must share treatments, and if we have them, surplus vaccine doses. They are urgently needed in tens of millions of vulnerable arms.
The world can’t afford to lose a decade to COVID by re-treading the paths of the past. Development veterans are already drawing parallels with the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, when Africans faced an agonizing 10-year wait for antiviral drugs. We just don’t have time for that.
We have it within our power to conquer this disease, but we must work together. The international community must rally behind the goal of vaccinating the entire globe. Such a message could pull us together to achieve this historic task. Let’s unite across the vaccine divide. Only together can the world move forward from this grotesque chapter.