Wealthy nations still aren’t doing enough during the pandemic
In the United States and a handful of other countries, the end of the pandemic seems near. Close to half of the U.S. population has received at least one vaccine dose in a nation awash with supply. In some states, local authorities are even trying to entice people to get a shot with promises of pints of beer and cash payments. Many Americans can now ponder sunny summer travel plans and a life free of most of the restrictions of the past year.
Much of the rest of the world isn’t so fortunate. The relentless surge of the coronavirus in India — where only about 2 percent of the population is fully vaccinated — is just the most intense reflection of an accelerating global tragedy. It took nine months for the world to track 1 million coronavirus-related deaths, but just six months to lodge the next 2 million. In sub-Saharan Africa, less than 1 percent of the population has received a shot. Some analysts predict that many countries in the developing world may only be fully immunized against the coronavirus by 2024. That gap, many experts fear, will lead to new deadly waves of the virus as it circulates and evolves.
“This is a man-made catastrophe,” former British prime minister Gordon Brown declared Monday during a World Health Organization briefing, where he called on the world’s wealthy nations to do much more to speed up the mass inoculation of much of the planet. “By our failure to extend vaccination more rapidly to every country, we are choosing who lives and who dies,” he said.
Brown delivered his warning ahead of meetings Tuesday in London of foreign ministers from the Group of Seven nations. In 2009, as prime minister, Brown presided over a major G-7 summit where the countries committed more than $1 trillion in additional funds to reckon with the fallout from the global financial crisis. He’s now asking the next generation of G-7 leaders, as well as the remaining Group of 20 major economies, to muster far less — $60 billion — to speed vaccine distribution to poorer parts of the world and deliver vital supplies, including medical oxygen, which have been in desperately short supply in some countries hit by the pandemic.
So far, though, the G-7 nations have only pledged a fraction of that amount. Public health advocacy groups have warned that rich countries are instead impeding efforts to curb the pandemic by hoarding doses and building up excess domestic supplies. The One Foundation, an anti-poverty organization, estimated that the monopolization of the first 2 billion vaccine doses by a clutch of wealthy nations could double the global coronavirus death toll. Beyond being morally unacceptable, vaccine hoarding was also self-defeating, the foundation argued, calculating that it could “cost the global economy up to US$9.2 trillion, with rich countries bearing half of those costs.”
Recent research from the Center for Disaster Protection, a humanitarian aid watchdog, found that 1 in 33 people on the planet are in need of humanitarian assistance — a 40 percent increase from the beginning of 2020. Yet at the same time, 92 percent of coronavirus-related relief funding, according to the group, has been doled out in the form of loans, saddling lower-income countries with debt and probably making it even harder for the poorest communities to receive support.
Slowly, some Western nations, including the United States, are donating millions of excess vaccine doses to countries in need. The pharmaceutical giant Moderna agreed Monday to supply a half-billion doses of its vaccine to the WHO’s struggling Covax facility, which was started to help vaccinate poorer countries. But the shortfall remains vast.
“Covax aims to distribute up to 2 billion doses this year, with an eye to reaching 20 percent of the population in participating low- and middle-income countries,” my colleagues noted. “To date, it has delivered 49 million doses.”
In a speech last week, President Biden said he hoped the United States would become an “arsenal of vaccines for other countries.” Some public health activists and Democratic lawmakers say one way to achieve that would be by backing the temporary suspension of international property provisions governed by the World Trade Organization. This would make it easier for developing nations to both mass produce and import generic versions of the sort of vaccines that are steadily inoculating the West. Similar waivers were issued two decades ago when developing countries sought the ability to license production of medicines to curb the spread of HIV, though not without an acrimonious fight.
The proposal to waive these patent rights was put forward by India and South Africa last October and has received the backing of dozens of countries. “But the United States and other wealthy nations, including Britain and Canada, have helped block the petition, with officials worried that it would throw global vaccine production into disarray, prompting advocates to complain that the White House is prioritizing drug companies’ billion-dollar profits rather than the billions of people still waiting for their first shots,” my colleagues reported.
On Wednesday, the question of waiving patents will be at the heart of deliberations at a meeting of the WTO General Council. Within the Biden administration, the debate has pitted public health officials who are in favor of easing international access to vaccines against those in other agencies more protective of U.S. business interests. Lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry have argued that such a move would disincentivize companies from pursuing the innovative technologies that underlie the new vaccines. But their critics contend that the companies themselves benefited from significant government stimulus and that the Biden administration need not heed their pressure campaigns.
“This year, Pfizer is expected to generate $15 billion in sales from its vaccine, with profit margins between 25 percent and 30 percent. Profits from the Covid-19 vaccine alone could be about $4 billion,” noted sociologist Walden Bello in an op-ed for the New York Times. “While the industry surely deserves credit for rapidly developing the vaccines, it could not have done so without generous government subsidies: The United States alone has given over $12 billion to six major vaccine companies for this purpose.”