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Opinion: A global vaccine waiver could mean the difference between life and death for so many

Rosamond Bennett of Christian Aid Ireland says Ireland must help challenge global vaccine injustice.

Rosamond Bennett

THE PAST NUMBER of weeks have been a rollercoaster when it comes to announcements around vaccine supply and roll out.

Last month, the European Medicines Agency approved the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine for use within the EU. Only a few weeks later, the company delayed rollout in the EU due to a decision by the US Food and Drug Administration to suspend its use over rare blood clotting fears.

Thankfully, the rollout of these doses is now back on the horizon and will form part of Ireland’s wider programme to vaccinate citizens against the worst pandemic seen in a hundred years.

Vaccines for the wealthy

While many people in Ireland might wish the rollout was progressing more quickly, especially in comparison to the UK where over half the population have now received their first dose, the global imbalance is stark and stacked against lower-income countries.

In wealthy countries, almost one in four people have so far received a vaccine, while in the developing world it’s closer to one in 500, according to the UN.

The global COVAX scheme, designed to share vaccines and help plug these gaps, aims to provide only enough vaccines to reach one in four people in low-income countries by the end of the year and is currently off-track to deliver on this. The Economist estimates more than 85 poorer countries could be waiting until 2023 for widespread access to coronavirus vaccines.

This imbalance is costing lives every single day.

India is now the global epicentre of the virus, regularly seeing more than 300,000 cases a day and even this could be a gross underestimate due to relatively low testing. To make matters worse, India is one of the world’s largest producers of coronavirus vaccines and the recent deterioration means even fewer doses will be shipped to other countries.

In Africa, where less than 2% of the more than 1 billion vaccine doses administered globally have been given, many countries are already paying more on inequitable debt repayments than on healthcare. They are being left with no choice but to look at taking on even more debt to pay for the purchase of vaccines.

In Kenya, home to over 50 million people, the government is aiming to vaccinate just 30% of the country. Currently, it has administered enough doses for fewer than 1% of its population. My colleague in Christian Aid Kenya is worried that this long wait for vaccines risks reversing the gains that have been made over many years to tackle extreme poverty.

Woefully inadequate

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and home to over 200 million people, only 0.3% of its population have received their first vaccine. By contrast, the US will soon have an estimated surplus of up to 300 million vaccines.

A Nigerian colleague told me that while he respects the responsibility of governments to make vaccines available to their own citizens, he finds it abhorrent that wealthier countries are hoarding vaccines above and beyond what they need.

A long wait for vaccines in a country such as Nigeria is particularly problematic, as many people work in the informal sector and rely on daily wages to support their families.

The inequality of the global coronavirus vaccines rollout is simply staggering, and something which has been perpetuated largely by both the actions and inactions of wealthier countries, who have purchased 4.6 billion doses to date or 60% of all orders despite only making up less than 1 in 5 of the global population. The EU has ordered enough doses to vaccinate their population more than twice over.

Crucially, global vaccine supply is also being sharply restricted by rules blocking more widespread production. The international manufacturing system can currently produce between three to five billion doses each year – far less than what’s possible and well short of the estimated 14 billion doses needed to protect us all from the virus.

In October last year, South Africa and India put forward a proposal to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to temporarily waive coronavirus vaccine patents so companies right across the world could produce and supply more doses. Yet staunch opposition from wealthier countries including the US, UK and the EU, have so far prevented the proposal from moving from paper to practice.

Artificially constraining supply in the midst of a deadly pandemic is not only a clear moral failure that will cost many lives, but it’s also badly short-sighted.

We are already seeing that the more the virus is left to circulate in any part of the world, the more we are all at risk of further variants developing, some of which may be more transmissible, more deadly or even vaccine-resistant. However, we aren’t going to stamp out the virus in time to prevent more variants from emerging unless we rapidly speed up vaccine production.

Temporary waiver

Despite opposition to date, the temporary waiver proposal has gained the backing of over 100 countries and support has continued to grow, including over 170 Nobel prize winners and former world leaders calling on President Biden to back it in a bid to ramp up global vaccine production and supply. Tomorrow, 30 April, the WTO will again meet to discuss and make a decision on the waiver.

Ireland has a well-deserved reputation of defending human rights and supporting many of the world’s poorest communities. As a member of the UN Security Council and as an EU member state, we can show leadership on the international stage by getting behind a temporary waiver and encouraging other states to do so too.

Recent comments by Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment Robert Troy are encouraging, and Ireland should now publicly call for the EU to collectively back this life-saving proposal.

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For many millions of people in poorer countries around the world, where vaccines are beyond reach for possibly years to come, where healthcare systems are already weak and where the humble bar of soap remains one of the last lines of defence against catching the virus, a waiver could mean the difference between life and death.

Rosamond Bennett is Chief Executive of Christian Aid Ireland and board member of the Irish Emergency Alliance. To support Christian Aid’s work visit caid.ie/vaccine.

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