Wealthy western governments will “prolong” the pandemic if they fail to help other nations boost vaccination rates, an international alliance of non-governmental organisations, charities and trades unions has warned.
The latest Covid-19 variant, omicron, which some scientists fear could be more troublesome than the dominant and highly contagious delta variant, has given fresh focus to the gulf between nations’ vaccination levels.
“While we still need to know more about omicron, we do know that as long as large portions of the world’s population are unvaccinated, variants will continue to appear and the pandemic will continue to be prolonged,” said Dr Seth Berkley, chief executive of Gavi, the international alliance dedicated to improving access to all vaccines.
“We will only prevent variants from emerging if we are able to protect all of the world’s population, not just the wealthy parts,” he added.
Medical charities and trades unions have doubled down on calls to improve access to vaccines in poorer countries. The UK and other rich countries must share not only doses of the vaccines but the intellectual secrets behind them, organisations including the Trades Union Congress have warned.
The call gained fresh urgency after the World Trade Organisation, the epicentre of activists’ efforts to address vaccine inequity, indefinitely postponed a much-anticipated ministerial meeting.
The umpire of global trade said that travel restrictions imposed in response to the new variant would mean many ministers would be unable to travel to WTO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
Nevertheless, Britain must still back the drive for an intellectual property waiver for Covid vaccines and treatments at the WTO, the TUC and NGOs said, via a mechanism called the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement.
As an important base for some pharmaceutical companies, the UK’s support and its officials’ lobbying skills could help shift the dial in the debate, they added.
“Cancellation of the WTO conference is no excuse for the UK not to drop its opposition to a waiver at this crucial time,” Frances O’Grady, director general of the TUC told The Independent.
Yet while few disagree with the principle of upping access to vaccines, debate rages over whether waiving rights to intellectual property can offer a fix to the problem.
The latest variant, first identified in southern Africa, comes from a region where vaccination rates are far lower than their richer western equivalents. Fewer than 24 per cent of South Africans have received a first and second dose of the vaccine according to figures collated by Oxford online publication Our World In Data.
However, the South African government has asked some vaccine-makers, including Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer to halt deliveries of more vaccine doses until they have deployed current stocks. Countries including the southern African nation have had their vaccine rollouts stymied by huge levels of hesitancy.
Misinformation, distrust of medical services and governments and a lack of infrastructure to enable doses to be delivered have all held back the effort to get people protection from Covid in developing countries.
But freeing up intellectual property for vaccines and key treatments has an important part to play, NGOs and charities argue. There was also some renewed hope for poorer nation’s vaccination rates on Friday after the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India, restarted exports for the UN-backed Covax distribution programme. These had been halted in March after a surge of infections in India.
“The world needs to work together to ensure equitable access to vaccines, now. This means manufacturers and donors providing the visibility for countries to roll out the largest national immunisation programmes in their history and it means recipient countries using all resources available to get safe and effective vaccines to those that need them,” Dr Berkley said.
For the UK’s part, its government must stop “dragging its feet” on the issue, Ms O’Grady said. “With over 100 countries backing a waiver, the UK shouldn’t be out of step with its international counterparts,” she added.
Many countries lack not only sufficient doses of life-saving vaccines but also a range of technologies that can help combat the virus, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres.
“It is absolutely shameful that the UK and other wealthy governments have continued to block the Trips waiver, knowing that it has the potential to protect some of the world’s most vulnerable people,” said Victorine de Milliano, UK policy adviser for the MSF Access Campaign.
“The government is burying its head in the sand and refusing to acknowledge the role of intellectual property in hampering the global Covid-19 response,” she told The Independent.
“As long as governments continue to block measures that could provide meaningful access to Covid-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments, there will be an increased risk of variants, including variants of concern, emerging.
“Despite the postponement of the 12th ministerial conference at the World Trade Organisation, the urgency to adopt the Trips waiver remains. We urge the UK government to finally take action on its vague claims of global solidarity and stop blocking the Trips waiver.
“Richer countries hoarding vaccines will only increase the risk of new Covid variants and mutations taking hold. That’s the last thing we need,” Ms Milliano said.
In October, the UK reiterated its opposition to an intellectual property waiver on pandemic-linked treatments and vaccines at the WTO. It instead pointed the benefits of the Covax programme and public private partnerships between governments and drug companies.
The UK has committed to donate 100 million vaccine doses by June 2022, 80 per cent of which are to be distributed via Covax.