- By Jamie Shea
On the anniversary of the WHO declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Africa Europe Foundation released a statement calling on national governments and the pharmaceutical sector to prioritise vaccine sharing via the COVAX scheme and fully fund the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A), in order to supply vaccines for low- and middle-income countries across the world.
Two months later and the world is no closer to controlling the pandemic. Infections across the world are now accelerating faster than ever.
Death rates remain high. With over 5 million new cases and 88,000 deaths in the past week, levels are amongst their highest since the beginning of the pandemic. Restrictions on movement and lockdowns can limit transmission, but without equitable, global vaccination schemes, the world will not see an end to this pandemic.
The only way out of this situation is making sure that vaccines and treatments are available to everyone, regardless of where and how they live. Having vaccinated 30% or more of their populations, several high-income countries are beginning to lift the restrictions on daily life and open their economies. However, fewer than one in 100 people in low-income countries have received a first dose – “a graphic display of global inequality”, according to the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR).
With India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, unable to supply COVAX with its current domestic need, African countries have few options for procuring approved vaccines. Yet again Africa is at the back of the line when it comes to medical supplies. But there is a historic opportunity to break this paradigm.
The African Union and the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) have led an increase in testing and diagnostic capacity on the continent, shared procurement of PPE and medical supplies, as well as pooled procurement and supply of vaccines. Investments have been made in cold chain facilities and in preparing the logistics of vaccine distribution. The political commitment to building regional capacity to manufacture medicines and supplies is there and initial financing is earmarked by the World Bank. However, one of the key remaining barriers is intellectual property (IP) and the technology required for manufacturing vaccines.
The IPPR have called for voluntary licensing and technology transfer for COVID-19 vaccines at the WTO – and should this not come into place within three months, an immediate waiver of intellectual property rights under the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
The AEF supports this call and welcomes the recent announcement by the United States administration that it will actively support the South African and Indian proposal for a waiver on intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines. Backed by the WHO, the African Union, NGOs and global health experts, the waiver would stimulate the production of vaccines and make COVID-19 vaccines much more accessible.
This historic shift opens the door to real change – and Europe must take this opportunity to be on the right side of history.
The EU claims to demonstrate altruism by allowing exports of some vaccine doses produced on its territory. In a worldwide health emergency, a marketing strategy for Team Europe to compete with the US and the United Kingdom is not a viable solution to the pandemic – the only way out requires genuine global solidarity and collaboration.
It is time to deliver. Providing some funds to COVAX while blocking efforts to share IP, either voluntarily or through the waiver, is no longer acceptable.
Europe can be a key global partner in strengthening health resilience by listening to the leadership in Africa’s COVID response. A first step would be proactively supporting voluntary technology transfer and a broad IP waiver at WTO negotiations.
‘None of us is safe until all of us are safe’ was the message from leaders around the world in the Spring of 2020. One year on, it’s time for actions to back up these words.
Gunilla Carlsson Co-Chair of the AEF Strategy Group on Health and Vice-Chair of the Strategy Committee at the Global Fund
Agnes Binagwaho Co-Chair of the AEF Strategy Group on Health and Vice Chancellor and co-founder of the University of Global Health Equity
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