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A global vaccine apartheid is unfolding. People’s lives must come before profit

03 February 2021

This article first appeared in The Guardian

By Winnie Byanyima, UNAIDS Executive Director

Nine months ago world leaders were queuing up to declare any Covid-19 vaccine a global public good. Today we are witness to a vaccine apartheid that is only serving the interests of powerful and profitable pharmaceutical corporations while costing each one of us the quickest and least harmful exist route from this crisis.

I am sickened by last week’s news that South Africa, a country whose HIV history should have taught us all the most appalling life-costing consequences of allowing pharmaceutical corporations to protect their medicine monopolies, has had to pay more than double the price paid by the European Union for the AstraZeneca vaccine for far fewer doses than it actually needs. Like so many other low and middle-income countries, South Africa is today facing a vaccine landscape of depleted supply where it is purchasing power, not suffering, that will secure the few remaining doses.

Nine out of 10 people living in the poorest countries are set to miss out on a vaccine this year. Production delays put even this figure in doubt. Unjustifiably high prices block access and threaten to push more countries into an ever-deeper debt crisis. If we continue to pursue the vaccine model we have, we will fail to get this pandemic under control for years to come.

Failure to change course will come at the cost of millions of lives and livelihoods around the world; to our progress on tackling poverty; to businesses, including those represented here at the World Economic Forum this week; and to our collective public health and economic security. Because make no mistake, the costs of vaccine inequality will not be confined to those living in the poorest countries.

The longer the virus is allowed to continue in a context of patchy immunity, the greater the chance of mutations that could render the vaccines we have and the vaccines some people in rich countries have already received, less effective or ineffective.

Research commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce published this week predicts that delays to vaccine access in poorer nations will also cost the global economy an estimated $9 trillion, with nearly half of this absorbed in wealthy countries like the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

We cannot rewind the last nine months or the failure so far of governments to enact their pledge to make Covid-19 vaccines global public goods. But we can and we must act now to change the otherwise catastrophic trajectory of this pandemic. The vaccine science, know-how and technology paid for in large part by over $100 billion of taxpayers’ money, can no longer be treated as the private property of pharmaceutical corporations. Instead, these must be shared openly, via the World Health Organisation’s Covid Technology Access Pool so that more manufacturers can be brought on board and a global plan put in action to scale up vaccine production.

To clear the pathway for this, governments must also urgently back the proposal tabled to the World Trade Organisation to temporarily waive intellectual property rights for COVID 19 vaccines, treatments and tests until the world has reached critically needed herd immunity and this pandemic is under control.

Almost every business on the planet has had to step away from business as usual as a result of this pandemic. It is in all our interests that pharmaceutical corporations now do the same. I invite governments and business leaders to join the growing call for a People’s Vaccine and together chart a new path that can secure enough vaccines, tests and treatments for all people in all nations.