Ending vaccine nationalism is only way to fight the pandemic, urges WHO chief

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks during a visit of the Presidents of the Swiss Federal Chambers. October 15, 2020. Credit :Keystone/Martial Trezzini

Since the development and distribution of vaccines, wealthier nations have been accused of hoarding. Addressing the World Health Organization (WHO) executive board on Tuesday, Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed that ending vaccine nationalism will only serve to benefit us all.

As the 10-day WHO executive board meeting ended Tuesday, Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus issued yet another plea against “vaccine nationalism.” In his closing remarks Tedros said “rich countries are rolling out vaccines, while the world’s least-developed countries watch and wait.”

“The longer we wait to provide vaccines, tests, and treatments to all countries, the faster the virus will take hold, the potential for more variants will emerge, the greater the chance today’s vaccines could become ineffective, and the harder it will be for all countries to recover,” he said.

At the same time whilst addressing the all-virtual 2021 World Economic Forum (WEF), South African President Cyril Ramaphosa accused wealthier nations of bulk-buying and hoarding the vaccines at the expense of others.

Low and middle-income countries were being sidelined by richer countries who are able to acquire “up to four times what their population needs” said Ramaphosa.

This follows comments by South Africa’s health ministry last week, which said that it is paying two and a half times more for Oxford-AstraZeneca’s vaccine than the European Union. Those sentiments were also echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in remarks made before  the WEF. She urged a “fair” distribution of the vaccines to all.

South Africa is the worst hit  African country by the pandemic with around 1.4 million cases and more than 40,000 deaths. Meanwhile only one out of the world’s 29 lowest income countries have formally started mass Covid-19 vaccination drives,  WHO officials said last week.

A new  report by the International Chamber of Commerce, released Tuesday at a WHO press briefing explains that all countries, including rich ones will face significant hits to their economic recovery unless there is equitable access to vaccines. With the current trends of the vaccines rollout, high income countries face losses of up to $2.4tn, due to disruptions to global trade and supply chains, as explained in the report.

In the best case scenario, the ICC report found that   “vaccine nationalism” will “cost the global economy up to $9.2 trillion” with  “$4.5 trillion incurred in the wealthiest economies." The hoarding of vaccines will only serve short-term political goals, as “ it’s in every nation’s own interests to support vaccine equity” said Tedros, who last week described it as a “catastrophic moral failure.”

Currently, the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator and its vaccines arm, the Covax facility, set up to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines is struggling to mobilise support from advanced economies and faces a $27.2 bn funding shortfall.

Finance ministers from South Africa and Norway last week called on colleagues from the OECD, G20, and Covax member countries to meet on January 29 and address the funding gap.

“Coronavirus... affects all of us equally. Therefore, our remedies, our actions to combat it must also be equal”, said Ramaphosa.

In his  repeated pleas, Tedros urged high income countries not to “cut the queue”, also asking for excess doses that countries don’t use to be donated to the Covax facility. Some countries, such as Canada, have pre-ordered more vaccines than they have people.

At the same time,  there is some light at the end of the tunnel as the United States last week committed to rejoin the WHO, and join the Covax facility.  As the agency’s top funder, the United States breathes new life into the pandemic fight worldwide.  The US reconciliation came just ahead of the year anniversary of the 30 January date that WHO declared Covid-19 a public health emergency of international concern.

Speaking at the executive board,  WHO director general  called upon all countries to work together to ensure that all health workers and older people received the vaccination within the first 100 days  of 2021. On Tuesday he added: “We have 74 days left. Time is short, and the stakes could not be higher. Every moment counts," he said.