Politics of Poverty

Vaccines can’t end the pandemic until they reach everyone, everywhere

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One year ago, we celebrated as the first (effective and safe) vaccine dose was administered in the US. In the months that followed, many of us were lucky enough to get fully vaccinated, with the hope of getting back to normal. But it’s been a rough road, as the emergence of variants has battered our hopes. In the end, we know that the pandemic won’t end until everyone, everywhere has access to these vaccines.

Post by Will Fenton and Laura Rusu

A year ago today, Sarah Lindsay, an ICU nurse in New York City, became the first person in the United States to receive a COVID-19 vaccine outside of a trial. “Getting that shot, I said it’s like a shot of hope, where I finally see some light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. Since that day, a majority of people in the US have been fully vaccinated, with 72% receiving at least one dose.

However, while vaccines brought hope in wealthy countries, many parts of the world see little light at the end of the tunnel. To date, only 7.3% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.

In fact, the number of people in the US who have already received a booster shot is twice the total number of people fully vaccinated across the 27 countries classified as low-income.

Despite investing billions of our taxpayer dollars in the development of highly effective COVID-19 vaccines, we find ourselves at the mercy of corporations that have monopoly control over the life-saving technologies everyone in the world needs. They limit the supply to boost their profit, earning billions for shareholders while the pandemic continues to kill thousands of people every day.

“It is obscene that just a few companies are making millions of dollars in profit every single hour, while just a tiny percent of people in low-income countries have been fully vaccinated against coronavirus,” said Maaza Seyoum of the African Alliance and People’s Vaccine Alliance Africa. “Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna have used their monopolies to prioritize the most profitable contracts with the richest governments, leaving low-income countries out in the cold.”

The real solution lies in sharing the recipe, not donating doses

In May, we enjoyed some real optimism for vaccinating the world and ending the pandemic, when President Biden announced his support for a waiver on intellectual property at the World Trade Organization (WTO); this was a critical move that would allow for the sharing of vaccine recipes and technological know-how, so that the rest of the world could have access. President Biden also declared that the US would be an “arsenal of vaccines for the rest of the world.”

Unfortunately, that optimism began to fade when a handful of rich countries—led by Germany and the UK—refused to support the waiver proposed by South Africa, India, and more than 100 other countries. Worse yet, we heard from numerous sources that the US representatives at the WTO did little to help get to a common position.

As the outrage over vaccine inequity grew, governments and pharmaceutical corporations planned to bridge the growing divide with donations of vaccines to low-and middle-income countries. Instead of waiving patents, sharing technology, and rapidly increasing vaccine access, wealthy nations sought to donate their way out of the pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, relying on the generosity of wealthy nations and vaccine producers has led to broken promises again and again. The report Dose of Reality details how governments and companies have failed to share doses with COVAX (the global initiative designed to share vaccines around the world). As of October, wealthy countries had delivered only 14% of the promised 1.8 billion doses, and pharmaceutical companies had delivered only 12% of the doses pledged.

Moreover, as new variants (like Delta and Omicron) emerge, wealthy countries make the choice to hoard doses for booster shots--leaving the promises of donations unfilled.

Where do we go from here?

While the news becomes more grim every day, there is hope in a growing movement of policy makers, experts, organizations, and activists that is demanding a more equitable global response to COVID-19.

Oxfam has been proud to stand with our partners in the People’s Vaccine Alliance and with countless activists around the world who have pressed world leaders to do more. Together, we recognize that we cannot donate our way out of this crisis, and that no one is safe until everyone is safe.

Our specific demands include:

  • Immediately approve the waiving of intellectual property rules to end the monopoly control of pharmaceutical companies over COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments.
  • Declare all vaccines to be global public goods—including new versions designed to combat variants—and declare that vaccine recipes and know-how be shared openly with producers worldwide via the WHO.
  • Work collaboratively with world leaders and health authorities to boost manufacturing, and to deliver and implement a fair and equitable global distribution plan for the vaccine and all COVID-19 products and technologies.

It’s been a long year since that first vaccine dose was administered in New York City. Many of us in the US have been lucky enough to get fully vaccinated, and have tried through fits and starts to get our lives back to some semblance of normal. But as the Omicron variant is alerting us, we can’t rest until everyone, everywhere has access to these vaccines--or we could all be back to square one.

The year 2021 will be remembered as the year where most people in rich countries got vaccinated. If we want to save lives and end this pandemic, let 2022 be the year where everyone, no matter where they live, no matter how much money they have, gains access to the COVID vaccine.

In 2022, for an actual and lasting light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, we need a People’s Vaccine.

Take action: Sign the petition to demand a People's Vaccine.

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