KAMPALA – Who will live? Those with money or all of us?
The Covid-19 pandemic is raging in Europe and USA and infection rates have exceeded those seen during the first wave. Stressed up political leaders are taking drastic steps to reduce transmission and minimize mortality and morbidity. In some countries, this has led to protests. These countries are working feverishly to rapidly vaccinate at least 70-80 % of the population — which is needed to achieve effective herd immunity and enable people to return to normal social and economic life as well as save lives.
This panic has prompted the decision to grab all available COVID-19 vaccines including doses to be produced in the future. For example, a recent highly publicized call requires vaccine manufacturers not to export any vaccines without permission from political leaders. Meanwhile, a new terminology has cropped up: “Vaccine Nationalism.” This in essence means that rich countries will have access to vaccines, while restricting export to poor and developing countries.
However, the WHO Director General, Dr. Adhanom Tedros and some global health leaders counter this by championing humanity, equity and solidarity to spare and avail some vaccines to low and middle income countries who have no resources to develop and make vaccines for themselves.
There is also the epidemiological argument which says that “pockets of the virus anywhere is a threat to all countries and no country is safe until all countries are safe.”
It is this spirit that triggered global leaders to launch COVAX, a facility intended to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics and treatments, and guarantee rapid, fair and equitable access to them for people in all countries. Its secretariat is at GAVI in Geneva, a multilateral agency that is already coordinating the supply of vaccines to low- and middle-income countries for many years. COVAX is working with manufacturers to provide investments and incentives to ensure that manufacturers are ready to produce the doses we need as soon as a vaccine is approved. The COVAX Facility also uses the collective purchasing power to negotiate competitive prices from manufacturers.
In 2016, I was a member of a global commission that produced a report titled “Neglected Dimension of Global Security; a framework to counter infectious diseases crises.” This report admits the sobering truth that there is limited capacity for producing potentially lifesaving vaccines, and not everyone is able to get needed medical products at the same time. This requires difficult decisions about who gets the medical products first. The ability to pay should not determine where products are distributed, as in the case of a country that wishes to stockpile vaccines for its low-risk population. Rather, those who are at the greatest risk and in imminent danger during a crisis—whether they are front-line health workers or a vulnerable local population—should have priority.
This means that, in order to ensure equitable access and distribution of vaccines to those in need, countries must refrain from nationalizing their vaccine manufacturing output. This was illustrated during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, when governments with pre-existing contracts sought to preserve the capacity of firms located within their territorial borders to inoculate their own citizens before giving or selling to other countries. The rationale, which is understandable, was that the governments had an obligation to their citizens before exporting vaccines to “other populations.” However, the reality was that the “other populations” were at very low risk and the prioritization was consistent with good public health policy.
Africa is currently experiencing a new spike of COVID-19 infections. While we appeal to the global community for solidarity, empathy and humanity, we need to appreciate that these infectious disease crises are going to increase in frequency. We must call upon African countries to take note; mount an effective response now and prepare for the future pandemics by developing internal capacity to develop, manufacture and distribute vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics within the continent in partnership with the rest of the world. Africa should join COVAX not just as a beneficiary but as a contributor of the best science and financial resources.
This is the vision of the AU/NEPAD, Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Plan for Africa (PMPA) endorsed by the Heads of State and Government in Accra in 2007. This is the time to rejuvenate this vision. It is a matter of life and death.
I conclude by applauding the Leaderships of African countries that have allocated funding for local development of therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines for COVID-19. In some countries such as Uganda, clinical trials of a therapeutic treatment are now in progress and all people of good will, including regional bodies in Africa should support these efforts.
Prof Omaswa is the Executive Director of the African Center for Global Health and Social Transformation(ACHEST)