Health Experts: COVID Vaccine Inequity Is Still Endangering Millions of Lives

In a scathing letter on Wednesday, more than 300 public health experts, academics, labor leaders, and activists accused rich countries of denying the world an “early exit” from the coronavirus pandemic by continuing to stonewall efforts to expand vaccine production and distribution in low-income nations.

Addressed to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the new letter calls on the two leaders to reject a recently leaked compromise proposal that departs dramatically from South Africa and India’s popular original plan to waive coronavirus-related patents for the duration of the pandemic.

That plan, first unveiled at the World Trade Organization in October 2020 in an attempt to ensure equitable global access to vaccines and therapeutics, has been blocked by the European Union and other rich countries. The pharmaceutical industry, which has reaped huge profits from its monopoly control over vaccine production, lobbied aggressively against South Africa and India’s proposal.

“We know that the blame for this inadequate text does not lie with your governments, who have worked tirelessly to deliver a TRIPS waiver,” reads the new letter from experts and campaigners. “The European Union and other rich countries have chosen to block the path to an early exit from this pandemic. They have put the lives of millions of people at risk by perpetuating vaccine inequality, creating the perfect breeding ground for new and potentially more dangerous or vaccine-resistant variants.”

“They have looked the other way,” the letter continues, “while millions have died needlessly because developing countries were not given the rights and the technology to make or import Covid-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments.”

While the text has yet to be finalized, advocates and experts say the compromise proposal in its current form would not meaningfully expand coronavirus vaccine access and would actually create new barriers for low-income countries looking to suspend patents and ramp up production of vaccines, treatments, and test kits as Covid-19 continues to spread.

In a statement on Wednesday, Dr. Mira Shiva of the All India Drug Action Network — a signatory to the new letter — argued that “this isn’t the comprehensive intellectual property waiver that India and South Africa demanded.”

“It isn’t even a compromise,” Shiva said. “The WTO is letting the European Union and United States hammer out a rich country stitch-up. We urge Prime Minister Modi and President Ramaphosa to reject this capitulation and demand the full TRIPS waiver that is needed for the global fight against Covid-19 and future health crises.”

Tian Johnson, head of the African Alliance and convener of the Vaccine Advocacy Resource Group, similarly warned that enactment of the leaked proposal “would only make it harder to manufacture affordable medical products in the Global South.”

“This proposal would only add more conditions before countries can begin production,” said Johnson. “Even the WHO-backed mRNA hub in South Africa wouldn’t be safe from Big Pharma’s lawyers.”

Fresh criticism of rich countries’ refusal to do everything in their power to expand vaccine access comes as coronavirus infections are surging in parts of Europe and Asia, a wave that experts have attributed to a highly contagious Omicron subvariant.

While the origin of the subvariant is not entirely clear, the initial Omicron strain was first detected in southern Africa in late November.

In remarks during a pandemic preparedness hearing on Tuesday, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “the inequities that we have faced in the past two years — for therapeutics, diagnostics, and vaccines — have undermined our efforts to bring Covid-19 under control.”

“Even as some high-income countries now roll out fourth doses of vaccine for their populations,” Tedros noted, “one-third of the world’s population is yet to receive a single dose, including 83% of the population of Africa.”

“And although we are now seeing a welcome decline in reported deaths, the pandemic is still far from over,” he said. “Transmission remains high, vaccine coverage remains too low in too many countries, and the relaxation of public health and social measures is creating the conditions for new variants to spread. Our focus must remain on ending the pandemic — in particular, by supporting all countries to vaccinate 70% of their population.”