The Perfect Enemy | Vaccine inequality blamed for boosting global Covid death toll - Financial Times
April 10, 2024

Vaccine inequality blamed for boosting global Covid death toll – Financial Times

Vaccine inequality blamed for boosting global Covid death toll  Financial TimesView Full Coverage on Google News

Unequal access to Covid-19 vaccines in 2021 led to one preventable death every 24 seconds, according to an open letter signed by prominent political figures, activists and academics that marks the third anniversary since the World Health Organization first described the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic.

The more than 190 signatories urge world leaders to pledge that “never again will the lives of people in wealthy countries be prioritised” over those in poorer ones. They say publicly funded medical innovations should be treated as “global common goods” and used to maximise health rather than profits.

The letter, whose signatories include Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz, ex-OECD chief Ángel Gurría and a host of former presidents and prime ministers, adds that these principles should be embedded in the Pandemic Accord discussions on how to prevent or manage future disease outbreaks, under way at the WHO.

The People’s Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of some 100 organisations that works to improve access to inoculations, co-ordinated the letter.

The figure for deaths is based on a study in the journal Nature Medicine, published last year, that said an estimated 1.3mn fewer people would have perished in 2021 had vaccines been distributed more equitably.

Covid-19 has killed more than 6.8mn people globally, according to Johns Hopkins University — a figure widely thought to be an underestimate — and damaged economies and health systems.

The WHO does not have the legal authority to declare pandemics. It gave Covid-19 the highest possible designation under international health regulations — calling it a “public health emergency of international concern” — in January 2020 but started using the term “pandemic” on March 11 that year after countries were slow to heed its warnings.

The health body sustained significant criticism for being too slow to act after the disease emerged and for being too lenient on China, where the virus is thought to have originated.

Inequality marred vaccine procurement efforts at the height of the pandemic. Wealthy countries secured doses early and in excess of their needs, leaving poorer ones to rely on schemes such as Covax, the international initiative that distributes jabs to low and middle income nations but which has had mixed success. When vaccines became more readily available, poorer countries with fragile infrastructure struggled to absorb and distribute them.

In remarks accompanying the letter, former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, one of the signatories, said the “great tragedy” of the pandemic had been “the failure of multilateralism”.

“These past three years should act as a warning for future pandemics. We need a return to genuine co-operation between nations in our preparation and response to global threats,” he said.

The signatories said co-operation would require removing intellectual property barriers during pandemics. The industry and some national governments fiercely resisted such attempts as Covid-19 continued to spread. A voluntary initiative by the WHO, known as C-Tap, failed to attract significant support.

The signatories accuse the pharmaceuticals industry of making “extraordinary profits, increasing prices in the Global North while refusing to share technology and knowledge with capable researchers and producers in the Global South”.

Billions of people in poorer countries, including frontline workers and the clinically vulnerable, “were sent to the back of the line”, they said.

The industry has dismissed these claims, saying there was little demand and poor absorption capacity in poorer countries.