So the last time I visited upon this issue, of the global inequalities in public health that had been shown up during the pandemic - of course, nowhere more so than in the woefully lopsided distribution of or access to vaccines, that has reliably progressed from the relatively benign confines of nationalism to the far more egregious and actively threatening embrace of apartheid. And in the emergence of this late, so very late Variant of Concern, christened Omicron, all our chickens have come home to roost. And yet my fear is that we look set to flatly refuse any lessons that may be on offer here - again, like always.
The much-maligned WHO (who'd be the WHO?) recently developed a strategic plan to address critical disparities in access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, vaccines and personal protective equipment in low- and middle-income countries. An estimated $23.4 billion funding is needed until September 2022 to implement a plan which would only deliver sufficient doses and support "vaccination campaigns to achieve 43% coverage" in the targeted countries. This is ultimately aimed at contributing to the global target of 70% coverage in all countries by mid-2022.
Yet we continue to wallow in this extended, and almost competitive version of Silly Season, where the UK this morning announced it had ordered an additional 114 million COVID vaccine doses - despite around 85% of its adult population being fully vaccinated - just 6% of Africa's 1.2 billion people have received two doses. There is increasing evidence to show that the new variant was circulating in Europe much before Omicron was identified in South Africa, thanks to the scientific rigour and openness of South African researchers.
COVAX, the global mechanism that was supposed to facilitate equal sharing of doses through a centralised donation and purchasing scheme, has failed. Its original goal of distributing two billion doses across the world during 2021 won't be met. Instead, COVAX now has a revised goal of distributing 1.45 billion doses by the end of the year. But at the time of writing, only 589 million doses had been shipped.
Global initiatives for sharing knowledge such as COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, launched by WHO last May, are stalling. So is the specialised mRNA vaccine hub that the WHO set up in South Africa. Both initiatives require production to open up to lower- and middle-income countries, but lack the leverage to bring 'Big Pharma' onside to participate in such a schema.
From refusing to prioritise supply to rich countries, to reverse-engineering the vaccine recipes themselves, countries are taking matters into their own hands. And, as the pandemic is prolonged by outdated economic doctrines, people are beginning to see vaccine apartheid for what it is - yet another expression of a colonialist mindset.
The WHO says only 15% of promised donations of vaccines - from rich countries that have access to large quantities of them - have been delivered. The U.N. health agency has said it wants countries to fulfil their dose-sharing pledges "immediately" and make shots available for programs that benefit poor countries and Africa in particular.
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