In a shocking gesture of failure by the West to deliver on its promise of equitable vaccine distribution, millions of African-made COVID-19 vaccines have been shipped to Europe in recent weeks that should have saved the lives of Africans.
In fact, I have learned from some African leaders that, during this month and next, some 10 million Johnson & Johnson vaccines manufactured and packaged at the Aspen factory in South Africa will be exported to Europe right at the moment. Africa is facing its biggest wave of infections.
In contrast to the challenge of the rapid development of innovative COVID-19 vaccines, now injecting them into the world’s population should be somewhat easier. However, so-called “vaccine nationalism”, as well as Europe’s neo-colonial approach to global health, is dividing the world between the rich and protected, living, and the poor, unprotected and at risk of dying.
Of the 4.7 billion doses that have been distributed in the world, more than 80% have gone to the richest countries of the G20. The gap between rich and poor is now so huge that, while high-income countries have administered almost 100 doses per 100 citizens, low-income countries have only administered 1.5 doses per 100.
So far, 496 million vaccines have been administered in the European Union, which has a population of approximately 440 million people. In contrast, only 77.3 million doses have been administered to the population of Africa, which is almost three times larger, with 1.3 billion people.
Thus, while 50% of the adult population of Europe, the United States and the United Kingdom is already fully vaccinated, the number of people with the full schedule in Africa is 1.8%, far behind India, which only It has vaccinated 8% of its population. Due to slow vaccine supplies, the World Health Organization now estimates that 47 out of 54 African countries will not meet even the modest September target of vaccinating 10% of their citizens. In countries like Burundi, not a single vaccine has yet been distributed.
‘Apartheid’ from vaccines
At this rate, there is no hope that Africa will reach the West’s vaccination levels either this year or next. It is not surprising that African leaders speak of “vaccine apartheid”. As Western governments prepare to administer a third booster dose, millions of African nurses and health workers, who risk their lives to save others, will be left completely unprotected. Africa’s vulnerable elderly population is also completely unprotected.
The vaccine program should have been a new kind of “arms race”. Quickly, one country after another should have been able to vaccinate its citizens. Yet countries with the most vaccines are not helping those with the least, and now detrimental economic effects on employment and livelihoods are causing a growing divergence between the fate of poor and rich countries. Low vaccination rates across the African continent have led the International Monetary Fund to once again downgrade the region’s economic prospects, while increasing those of vaccinated Western countries, and Africa is experiencing growth rates that are half that of those. from the rest of the world.
The African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT), disappointed by the failure to deliver on Western promises to provide funding for 700 million vaccines to Africa by the end of the year (the Covax vaccine distribution has only been able to get 60 million so far), has taken action on the matter. It has negotiated an agreement with Johnson & Johnson to obtain 400 million vaccines. To do this, it has had to overcome resistance from the EU. Only after South African President Cyril Ramaphosa stepped in and threatened to ban all vaccine exports from South Africa, did Europe agree that all future J&J vaccines produced in Africa would stay on the continent starting in October. Now, 30% of the adult population in Africa is guaranteed vaccination, even if it takes until September next year for this to happen.
However, vaccines are not yet available to meet Africa’s vaccination target of 60% of adults, or to cover that other 30% of people who were promised vaccines supplied by the West. For this reason, they tell me that the African Union has had no choice but to start negotiations with China to buy at least 200 million Chinese-made vaccines. The delays are now so severe that the IMF, the World Bank, the WHO and the World Trade Organization (WTO) have created a vaccine “war room” to help track, coordinate and advance vaccine delivery. . Despite this, only the political leadership of the G7 countries, which have negotiated vaccines well in excess of their population, will ensure that all continents receive an adequate supply.
The next vaccines
The world will manufacture about 6 billion more doses of vaccines through December and increase production by many billions more next year. This supply could be enough for all countries to meet the 60% vaccination target by next summer. The problems that will perpetuate inequalities in vaccine distribution can only be solved with a level of global coordination that has so far been conspicuously absent from the G7 and G20 leaders.
Two policy changes are urgently needed, which US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, chairman of the G20, must now carry out at a special summit on G20 vaccines that should be convened next month.
First, they must foster a virtuous circle, starting with guaranteed international financing from the richest countries, to underwrite and accelerate the development of new global manufacturing capacity in the poorest countries. This would include accelerating technology transfer through licensing agreements that would benefit from a temporary exemption from vaccine patents.
However, Africa needs vaccines immediately.
Currently, the United States has the option of 1.96 billion additional doses. The European Commission has access to 1 billion additional vaccines, while Canada has obtained 191 million (and at one point had obtained almost 10 vaccines per citizen). Due to oversubscription, their populations may not be using all of these vaccines, but in the process of securing preferential deals rich countries have effectively blocked African countries from accessing urgently needed doses.
G7 leaders must step in now to ensure supplies get to where they are most needed. Countries with oversupply must end a situation that creates a lockdown on available vaccines and future supplies. Not only must they release them for Africa, but, as proposed by the IMF and four former US finance ministers, they must provide at least $ 50 billion in financial support through Covax and the necessary logistical assistance to ensure that vaccines can be administered in a timely manner. quickly and safely.
Ensuring access to vaccines for African populations is not just an imperative for Africa. It is in the interest of all of us. As the Oxford University / AstraZeneca vaccine creator Sarah Gilbert has said, the biggest threat we face is the virus spreading and mutating out of control in countries with unvaccinated populations. We must continue to remember the reason for ensuring mass vaccination of the whole world: no one is safe anywhere until everyone is safe everywhere, and we will all live in fear until no one is afraid.
– Gordon Brown is former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and author of the book Seven ways to change the world (Seven Ways to Change the World)
Translated by Emma Reverter.