As rich countries race to roll out their vaccination programs, leaders in the Global South and global health advocates are increasingly decrying vaccine hoarding that has pushed poorer countries to the back of the line during the pandemic. Some rich countries have secured enough COVID-19 vaccines to inoculate their populations several times over, while poorer countries struggle to secure enough doses, almost certainly prolonging the pandemic by months or even years. Public health policy expert Dr. Mohga Kamal-Yanni says an obvious way to address the issue is to share technology so more companies in more countries can produce the vaccines. “There is a supply issue,” she says. “We’re in a pandemic. We need to vaccinate a big percentage of the population globally if we want to be safe.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is urging wealthy countries to stop hoarding surplus doses of COVID-19 vaccines. He made the comments in an address to leaders at the World Economic Forum.
PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: The rich countries of the world went out and acquired large doses of vaccines from the developers and manufacturers of these vaccines. And some countries have even gone beyond and acquired up to four times what their population needs. And that was aimed at hoarding these vaccines. And now this is being done to the exclusion of countries, of other countries in the world, that most need this. … We are all not safe if some countries are vaccinating their people and other countries are not vaccinating. We all must act together in combating coronavirus, because it affects all of us equally.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. His comments come as the death toll from COVID tops 42,000 in South Africa, about half of the entire African continent.
To talk more about vaccine equity, we’re joined by Dr. Mohga Kamal-Yanni. She is a policy adviser to the People’s Vaccine Alliance and to UNAIDS, the joint U.N. program on HIV and AIDS. She has worked for decades on access to medicines and healthcare in developing countries, previously senior health and HIV policy adviser at Oxfam, the global anti-poverty organization, speaking to us from Oxford in Great Britain.
Thanks so much for joining us again. I wanted to ask you about — you just listened to Dr. Hotez, the problems the U.S. is having in distributing the vaccine. You listen with an ear of, whatever problems we’re having in the U.S., if only, kind of — the idea that of the 46 countries that are vaccinating their populations, only one is a low-income country. What can be done about this?
DR. MOHGA KAMAL–YANNI: Well, the thing is, what people forget is the problem we’re having, or one of the big problems, is the supply. There isn’t enough doses available now, or tomorrow or next week, for everybody. Even if you want to vaccinate everybody in the U.S., as your plan is, you know, Biden’s plan — and same in the U.K. — where are you going to get the doses? So, there is a supply issue.
You know, the EU now is having a fight with AstraZeneca, because AstraZeneca didn’t — cut down on what they will be able to supply for the time being. Now, why? Because there isn’t enough doses. Why there isn’t enough doses? Because we’re keeping the production tied to one company. You know, only AstraZeneca can produce the Oxford vaccine. Only Pfizer can produce the BioNTech vaccine. And only Moderna can produce the vaccine that was developed by the NIH, or jointly with the NIH. This is just — it’s really crazy. We’re in a pandemic. We need to vaccinate a big percentage of the population globally, if we want to be safe.
So, there is a solution. The solution is to share technology. And WHO set up a mechanism whereby you can share that technology. The companies can share the technology with this mechanism. It’s called COVID Technology Access Pool — C-TAP, for short. So, C-TAP can facilitate the technology transfer from the company to the potential producers, whether these producers are in India or in Indonesia or in Jordan or in South Africa or in Italy or Spain or any other country. There is more manufacture capacity in the world, totally unused. Why? Because we still want to keep, or leaders want to keep, the monopoly on supply and on price in the hands of pharmaceutical companies. This is crazy in a pandemic. I mean, it’s bad in normal time. In a pandemic, it’s just crazy.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Dr. Kamal-Yanni, as you’ve said, there is a massive shortage, for these reasons, of vaccines. And of the vaccines that are available, as of earlier this month, mid-January, a small group of rich countries, comprising just 16% of the world’s population, had already bought up 60% —
DR. MOHGA KAMAL–YANNI: Yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: — of the world’s supply. Now, it’s clear at this point that most low- and even middle-income countries will not get access this year, and possibly next year, to either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, although some may get the AstraZeneca vaccine. A number of countries now have been making bilateral deals with China —
DR. MOHGA KAMAL–YANNI: Yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: — which has two vaccines that have been approved at least in China, as well as with Russia for their Sputnik V vaccine. And in China, it’s Sinopharm and Sinovac. What do we know about the effectiveness of these vaccines and the likelihood that they will help, their production and dissemination in poorer countries will help arrest the pandemic?
DR. MOHGA KAMAL–YANNI: Well, so, the countries kind of realize that they can’t wait, and that they’re going to the big companies. They get the reply of “Sorry. You know, all my production for this year is booked.” They got that answer, actually, from a number of companies. So they had to go to the Chinese and to the Russians.
Now, the Chinese companies, the two that you mentioned — and there’s others in the pipeline — the two that you mentioned are using kind of old, tested technology. So, they have the great potential of being easy to make, or easier to make, and they can produce at massive scale. So, they have that potential.
The problem is that we don’t have the data on the efficacy and the safety of these vaccines. Sinopharm was approved in the Emirates, and the Emirates regulatory authority said it, I think, is over 80% effectiveness. In Brazil, the clinical trial said it’s 54%. We don’t know the details of why is this, so it’s difficult to really judge. It’s difficult for a country that is buying this vaccine to judge the efficacy and the safety and the quality of the vaccine.
But, however, the good news is that both vaccines have submitted data to the WHO to look at the efficacy, safety and quality, and hopefully WHO can get this information, can get all the information they need, and therefore can tell us that these vaccines are good, because if they say these vaccines are good, then that is really good news for developing countries. They would not have to wait for Pfizer or Moderna.
The Russian vaccine, I think WHO is still waiting for data on the Russian vaccine, to explore it, to investigate it. But I think they haven’t — well, they’re still waiting for the data, so we don’t really know what will happen.
But again, you know, there is capacity in the world. We go round and round trying to find a solution, when the solution is kind of in our face, and the countries don’t want to look at it. So, if you have technology transfer, sharing technology — so, China can share. Cuba has just — is in Phase III trial in one of its vaccines, and Cuba has 30 years’ experience of manufacturing vaccines for its people. So, you know, there are these capacities. Indians are also researching vaccines, on top of the bilateral deal that they have with — that one company has with AstraZeneca. So, there is that capacity. Can you imagine when everybody — Italy has capacity. When everybody that has capacity can produce the vaccines, can you imagine how many millions of doses we will have for developing countries and even for rich countries?
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, and we hope to have you back soon. This is a continuing issue in this crisis of the globe. Dr. Mohga Kamal-Yanni, policy adviser to the People’s Vaccine Alliance and to UNAIDS, the joint U.N. program on HIV and AIDS, has worked for decades on access to medicines and healthcare in developing countries.
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