Hoarders hold back vaccine equity

27th November 2021

Vaccines are desperately needed in developing countries

The emergence of a new Covid ‘variant of concern’ in Southern Africa, designated Omicron by the World Health Organisation (WHO), is a direct consequence of vaccine hoarding by the rich capitalist nations, more concerned with addressing the economic consequences of the pandemic rather than the public health impact.  

The Omicron variant is regarded as the most complex seen so far and has emerged in countries with vaccination levels of under 30%, with Namibia at a low of only 12% being fully vaccinated.  South Africa itself has 27% vaccination rates but this is unevenly spread across the country, with some rural areas at levels in single figures.

Worldwide there is no shortage of vaccines but distribution remains massively uneven.  The G20 richest countries currently hold 89% of existing vaccines with 71% of future deliveries scheduled for these countries.  The storage time for many of these vaccines is not infinite.  COVAX calculate that around 100 million of these vaccines will pass their use by dates in December.  The prospect of the world’s richest countries pouring vaccine down the drain while infection rates, hospitalisation and deaths continue to escalate in the developing world, is very real.

As ever, the leaders of the ‘free world’ can talk the talk but they cannot walk the walk.  Promises of vaccine distribution to the developing world are routinely made but are rarely delivered upon.  At a summit chaired by US President, Joe Biden, in September a target of 40% vaccination by December was set for the 92 poorest countries.  In the majority of those countries that target will not be met.

The vaccine hoarding nations of the world are directly to blame for this.  The United States has only delivered 25% of the vaccines promised.   The European Union has delivered 19% of its promise, the UK just 11% and Canada merely 3% of its commitment.  The net effect of this is that only 3% of people in low income countries are fully vaccinated, compared to over 60% in higher income countries.

The early identification of Omicron has meant that quick action is being taken to sequence the variant and test the efficiency of existing vaccines in combatting it.  However, should further vaccine development be required that will take some time to test, produce and disseminate.

The British government was quick to ban flights from Southern Africa and started a domino effect across the world, as steps are taken to contain the spread.  Calls to introduce Plan B in Britain, which would require mask wearing in public, working from home and a Covid passport system, restricting access to public spaces for those without a double vaccination, have already been raised and may yet be part of the response to the new variant.

So far British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has only been prepared to go with a Plan B-lite, introducing mask wearing as compulsory in retail and on public transport; re-introducing PCR tests for anyone entering the country; and enforcing 10 day isolation for any contacts of someone who has tested positive with suspected Omicron variant.

Measures will be reviewed after three weeks, giving the scientists time to see how the new variant behaves and politicians to hedge their bets in the run up to Christmas.

The WHO is meeting next week to consider the current situation but only has the power to exhort and persuade rather than enforce.

It is clear from the international response to the pandemic so far that the world’s richer nations cannot be relied upon to support those at the sharp end of the pandemic.   The current upsurge in cases of the dominant Delta variant across Europe, with Germany already considering a national lockdown, is likely to distract attention from vaccine equity, as the G20 continue to prioritise their own economic salvation above all else.

COVAX, which is led by the World Health Organization, GAVI and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and in partnership with UNICEF, has 190 participating countries. It needs more than US$2 billion to fully meet its goal to vaccinate those most in need by the end of the year.

The United Nations campaign, Only Together, launched in March continues to press for the scaling up of vaccine access by sharing excess vaccines, transferring technology, offering voluntary licensing or waiving intellectual property rights.  There will no doubt be a majority of UN members who support the goal of vaccine equity but the disproportionate balance of power means that only with the promises of the minority rich capitalist world coming good can the goal be achieved.

The pandemic has clearly exposed the capitalist system as one which is moribund and incapable of meeting the basic needs of its people.  If a pandemic which has claimed 2.5 million lives worldwide, and is set to claim as many again, cannot compel co-operation to support the most deprived it is a damning indictment of the system.

The ultimate solution is that the people themselves take control.  Through socialist planning and co-ordination of resources for the needs of the people first, rather than the profits of the banks and corporations, a different way is possible.  It may be too late for the victims of the current pandemic but it is the only way the same mistakes will not be repeated, when the world finds itself in this position again.

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