Here we are.
Almost a year after the first COVID-19 vaccine was given in the UK, after more than a year of citizens and organizations pleading with world leaders to guarantee vaccine equity, and after repeated warnings by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other experts that failure would lead to more dangerous variants that threaten our health and the global economy, the world now faces Omicron.
While there’s still much we need to learn about Omicron, it’s a wake-up call for rich nations and pharmaceutical companies to finally stop the greed and nationalism that’ve led us to this point and commit to work together in solidarity to end the pandemic.
To date, only 7.2% of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated. For comparison, Public Citizen found that the number of Americans who’ve received a third booster shot actually exceeds the number of people across southern Africa who’ve received just a first dose.
Throughout the better part of the last two years, developing countries in Africa and around the world have looked to the international community for support but found leaders unable to muster the kind of urgency for vaccinating the world as they have for enacting knee-jerk measures like travel bans.
That’s why Omicron is here, because richer nations have hoarded vaccines and the knowledge needed to produce them, while not stepping up with a battle plan to fully vaccinate at least 70% of people in every country.
Dose-sharing was meant to be an initial stop-gap. But with only a few weeks left in 2021, the wealthiest countries in the G7 and European Union have only shared two-thirds of the 640 million doses they pledged for 2021 with low- and middle-income countries (either directly or through COVAX, the global COVID-19 vaccine initiative), according to Airfinity. While the US has delivered over 96% of its 2021 pledge, the EU, including Germany, France and Italy, as well as Canada and the UK, have delivered under 54%.
In the bigger picture, the global vaccine supply continues to be artificially limited and controlled by a handful of countries and pharma companies in the interest of the powerful few over the rest.
The proposal by India and South Africa (backed by over 100 countries) to waive the intellectual property surrounding the production of vaccines, allowing them to be produced and owned locally, continues to be delayed at the World Trade Organization. The UK, Switzerland, Canada, and the EU, backed by Germany, lead the opposition, while the US has stated support but done nothing to force the issue. This needs to change.
Pharma companies have proven unwilling to share their technology and manufacturing know-how voluntarily toward unleashing global production and ensuring vaccine access for all. This needs to change.
As we face this concerning new variant, it begs key questions.
Where are the doses that have been promised for low- and middle-income countries by governments and pharma companies? When will they finally come clean and be open about vaccine contracts, production, distribution and donations so the world can plainly see where the gaps are and who needs to step up?
When will governments fully fund and commit not to undermine COVAX (and also the African Union’s vaccine acquisition task force)?
When will we stop letting a few pharma companies hold the world hostage and finally compel them to share their intellectual property, technology and know-how with developing country producers and others to increase the global vaccine supply and empower those countries and regions with ownership and distribution authority?
And why are we still waiting for wealthy governments to make the significant up-front investment needed to spark a massive scale-up in readiness among developing countries to ensure they can get doses in arms when, hopefully, they get the supply?
“No one is safe until everyone is safe” has been a rallying cry since the early days of COVID-19 but it’s not just a slogan. It’s the reality we continue to face, and Omicron is a stark reminder.