Richest countries need to start treating the Covid vaccine as a global public good
To extend one of Professor Jonathan Van Tam’s famous footballing metaphors, the emergence of the Omicron variant has suddenly taken the Covid-19 pandemic into extra time. It didn’t have to be this way. Indeed, the unfolding impact of Omicron is a spectacular own goal by the richest countries, who have created the conditions for new variants to spread in largely unvaccinated populations.
To understand how we’ve ended up here, we need to dial back at least 18 months, to May 2020, when the World Health Organisation launched the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool, or C-TAP, in a bid to share access to technology, treatment, and vaccines.
The proposal, backed by Costa Rica, was designed to allow manufacturers around the world to respond to the pandemic by producing at speed and scale, without the risk of prosecution for breaking patent laws. The UK, US, and Switzerland, anxious to protect their pharmaceutical industries, all strongly opposed C-TAP, as did major companies including Pfizer, GSK, and Astra Zeneca.
What happened with the C-TAP set the tone for what happened subsequently. Measures to waive patents and share technology and know-how, which could have helped to speed vaccine roll out, have been repeatedly blocked at the World Trade Organisation, including by the UK and Germany. In a grimly ironic twist, last week’s WTO ministerial meeting in Geneva – where it was hoped to progress talks on vaccine waivers – was cancelled because of fears about the spread of Omicron.
From the outset, rich countries have taken steps which doomed COVAX to miss its targets
Meanwhile the COVAX initiative, launched in April 2020 by the WHO, Gavi and CEPI with the public backing of the presidents of France and the European Commission, has promised 2 billion vaccine doses at low cost to poorer countries by the end of this year. Yet from the outset, rich countries have taken steps which doomed COVAX to miss its targets. Massive orders by the UK, Canada, the US, and EU member states, many times in excess of what was required for their populations, were backed by the threat of legal action against companies if they failed to deliver.
In effect, options claims by rich countries have repeatedly pushed poor countries to the back of the queue. COVAX’s target will be missed by around two-thirds this year, while G7 countries are reportedly holding 600 million more vaccines than what’s needed, even taking into account their planned booster programmes. This hoarding has created a situation where more people in rich countries have now received booster jabs, than people in low-income countries have received two initial doses. Indeed, 90 per cent of health workers in Africa remain unprotected against COVID-19.
As well as being ethically unjustifiable, this approach has been at best epidemiologically short-sighted. Whether or not Omicron did in fact originate in low-vaccine coverage countries in Southern Africa, by creating a situation where large populations remain exposed to the virus, the risk of mutation and reinfection increases.
The fact that this variant of concern has triggered panic across wealthy countries and led to discriminatory travel bans that will likely do more damage to jobs in South Africa, than they will suppress infection rates in Europe, only reinforces the impression that far from being serious about tackling vaccine inequality, the drawbridge is being drawn up further.
Later this week, the G7 foreign ministers will gather in Liverpool, for a meeting chaired by Liz Truss. At the end of November, G7 health ministers flunked their initial response to the Omicron variant, with a joint statement that was remarkable chiefly for its bland equivocation. The Liverpool meeting can and must do better.
When they assemble, foreign ministers need to put in place an urgent plan that finally treats the Covid vaccine as a global public good, rather than a private commodity. They should enable production to be scaled up in different countries through support for a TRIPS waiver and by mandating companies to “share the recipes”. Technology and know-how transfer needs to be boosted to increase production, particularly in countries with low vaccination rates. Rich and highly vaccinated countries must share existing stockpiles of vaccines via COVAX, and agree fairer distribution of vaccines they have ordered to help fulfil the WHO ambition to vaccinate 70 per cent of the world by mid-2022.
As we approach the end of a year in which the most powerful nations have repeatedly failed to meet their responsibilities in sharing the vaccine, there is now an opportunity to do what is right, as well as smart, and win the match against Covid-19.
Patrick Watt is the Director of policy, public affairs and campaigns at Christian Aid.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.