The Omicron variant has reaffirmed what health and social justice advocates have been saying since the beginning of the pandemic — no one is safe until we’re all safe from COVID-19.
And becoming safe means being vaccinated, something that has been out of reach for billions of people around the world due to vaccine hoarding by wealthy nations, restrictive patent rules that limit the production of vaccines, and a lack of emergency COVID-19 funding.
But wealthy countries have an opportunity to break this stalemate in the year ahead by fully funding the global effort to vaccinate all people.
The US, in particular, can take leadership on this issue by including at least $17 billion to support global vaccination efforts in the upcoming financing budget for 2022 that will be negotiated in the coming weeks, according to advocates.
A group of Congress members urged the White House to prioritize these funds in an open letter in December 2021 that stressed the importance of global solidarity.
“No investment in the fight against COVID-19 is more urgent and cost-effective now than an investment in getting the world vaccinated as quickly as possible,” they wrote. “Even assuming wealthy countries will be fully vaccinated by mid-2021, the global economic cost of not vaccinating lower-income countries is estimated to be $9 trillion per year, or nearly 10% of global GDP.”
The humanitarian nonprofit CARE calculates that the World Health Organization’s Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, or ACT-A, will need $63 billion this year to reach its goal of vaccinating 70% of the world by the middle of this year.
Roughly $40 billion of this amount will go toward maintaining the stringent storage and delivery protocols that ensure that vaccines remain effective, especially in hard-to-reach rural areas that often lack adequate electricity. Low-income countries themselves can afford $20 billion of this amount, but another $20 billion will have to come from donor countries like the US.
With an additional $23 billion needed for ACT-A to buy vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments, and to support health systems more broadly, wealthy countries will have to provide $43 billion to meet public health goals. A fair share amount for the US — taking into consideration economic size and ability to pay — would be $17 billion, according to CARE.
While that seems like a lot, it’s meager in the context of overall COVID-19 relief spending. In the first six months of the pandemic alone, countries spent $11 trillion combatting the virus. The US spent $1.9 trillion on its first major COVID-19 relief package.
Failing to raise the needed resources would have catastrophic consequences. Already, 5.5 million people have died from the virus, and cases are surging around the world.
Vaccinations and treatments for other deadly diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis have stalled amid the pandemic. In low-income countries, overwhelmed health care systems have struggled to provide care to people with routine illnesses and conditions. As a result, deaths among women and children have soared because they’re not able to receive medical attention for health issues beyond COVID-19.
Each month that the pandemic continues, the strain on health care systems intensifies, the widening gulf of inequality grows, and opportunities arise for new, more deadly COVID-19 variants to emerge.
“Focusing exclusively on domestic testing, vaccines, and boosters is insufficient to protect us from the virus,” Congress members wrote in their letter to the White House. “The time to act was a year ago. We cannot afford to waste another moment and risk the emergence of yet another, even more dangerous variant. It is long past time to end this pandemic.”