As I received my second vaccination against COVID-19 at the UC Santa Cruz Health Center on Feb. 12, I couldn’t help but think of the millions of medical professionals and vulnerable populations worldwide who had yet to receive a single dose.
It did not feel right for me, a healthy 22-year-old, to be vaccinated at a point in time where 130 under-resourced countries, representing 2.5 billion people, had yet to receive a single vaccine.
Of the estimated 59 million healthcare workers in the world, the 62 of us working at UCSC’s Molecular Diagnostics Lab received the vaccine very early on thanks to our privilege of living in the U.S. and attending a comparatively well-funded research university like UCSC.
That was nearly three months ago, and though some progress is underway, it is nowhere near adequate. WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that as of April 23, only 0.3 percent of the 900 million vaccinations administered globally have been administered in low-income countries, while 81 percent went to high or upper middle-income countries.
While 10 African countries are yet to receive a single vaccine, and dozens more have received miniscule amounts, the EU has successfully secured a staggering 2.6 billion doses, accounting for potential future booster shots, despite having a population of 447 million.
These disparities are not accidental, but rather a lasting result of colonialism and policies that exploit resources and stifle development. For instance, sanctions were placed on Iran at the beginning of the year that stopped it from processing payments from its central bank or receiving loans from the IMF, subsequently making it unable to purchase vaccines. Iran finally received its first shipment of vaccines earlier this month from COVAX, an underfunded and poorly executed global initiative to bring vaccines to lower-income countries.
COVAX is a partnership between the World Health Organization (WHO), the Global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI), and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). It aims to deliver two billion doses to 190 countries by the end of the year. Even if COVAX meets this ambitious goal, it will take years at this pace to reach any tangible herd immunity. At the time of publication, COVAX remains at least $2 billion dollars short of its $8 billion target to reach its 2021 goals.
As COVAX falls short, wealthy nations and pharmaceutical corporations continue to prioritize patent protections and profits over proposals that could significantly increase vaccine availability worldwide.
An effort led by India and South Africa to temporarily waive the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) is supported by 100+ countries, nonprofit organizations, 170 Nobel laureates and former heads of state, and more. A temporary waiver of these intellectual property protections would allow private and public facilities around the world to mass produce vaccines and other related products like syringes and PPE. The proposal, which is opposed by all major pharmaceutical companies, as well as wealthy nations like the US, the UK, and members of the EU, will be addressed by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in early May.
Waiving TRIPS is not some unrealistic fantasy, as pharmaceutical companies and Bill Gates claim. They claim that producing the COVID-19 vaccines requires rigorous standards that are not found in so-called “third world” countries. But the fact of the matter is that “third world” nations ranging from Bangladesh and India to Cuba and Argentina do have the capacity to mass produce COVID-19 vaccines.
Just last week, Argentina reached an agreement with Russia to start domestically producing the Sputnik V vaccine, supplying a desperately needed 5 million vaccines per month to a country facing a massive surge in cases, nearing full ICU capacity, and that had to delay administering second doses due to vaccine shortages.
But the fact that the dire COVID-19 situation in Argentina could be considered “mild” compared to some other countries shows just how devastating vaccine distribution lags have been.
Though Pfizer conducted clinical trials in Argentina and Brazil, they proceeded to lock these countries out of the vaccine they helped create in a process eerily reminiscent of colonial systems of exploitation. Pfizer hard-balled negotiations with Brazil and Argentina to the point they were unable to reach any vaccine deal, with one unnamed government official describing the situation as “being held ransom,” according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Just two months later, the highly transmissible P.1 or Brazil variant emerged in Manaus, Brazil.
First reported on Jan. 10, the P.1 variant has ravaged Brazil into record case- and death-rates, and has impacted neighboring Peru and Colombia similarly. The variant contributed to a massive surge that saw March and April become the deadliest months in Brazil to date, with over 67,000 of the country’s almost 400,000 deaths coming in April alone.
In South Africa, the B.1.351 variant has proven to be the most challenging variant yet. Not only is it highly contagious, studies suggest some vaccines are not as effective against it. At the time of publication, South Africa has only administered 292,623 vaccines, a miniscule portion of the 1.25 million healthcare workers in the country.
Global health inequities, vaccine hoarding, and local government inefficiencies all contributed to an environment where the South African government was unable to secure an already diminished amount of vaccines for its population. The B.1.351 variant only furthered complications, as data showed the AstraZeneca vaccine had decreased efficiency against this variant.
It is not equitable when healthy 16-year-olds in the most powerful nations on Earth can be vaccinated before the elderly, health care workers, or at-risk populations of dozens of lower-income countries. I, a healthy 22-year-old, was vaccinated before my 84-year-old grandma and before my 59-year-old aunt battling breast cancer in my home country of Argentina.
This isn’t to pass moral judgements on 16-year-olds being vaccinated – everyone should get vaccinated as soon as the opportunity becomes available to them. The fault instead lies in greedy, profit-driven models of resource distribution – vestiges of a supposedly-ancient colonial world.
As we near a “return to normal” in the United States, we must acknowledge that, at this current pace, the vast majority of the world will not enjoy “normal” until 2022 or even 2023. We must join our elected officials to support the temporary waiver on WTO TRIPS protections, increase funding to COVAX, and ensure no country is left without vaccines.