WTO, WHO: Unequal distribution of vaccines âmorally unconscionableâ
A health workers conducts a supplemental immunization in Barangay Pinyahan, Quezon City on February 3, 2021.
The STAR/Michael Varcas, file

WTO, WHO: Unequal distribution of vaccines ‘morally unconscionable’

Pia Lee-Brago (The Philippine Star) - April 19, 2021 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — World health and trade bodies hit last weekend the sharp disparities in distribution of vaccines in the global fight against the pandemic as “morally unconscionable” and economically and epidemiologically self-defeating.

During a special ministerial meeting of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) themed “A Vaccine for All” last Friday, World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “Vaccine equity is the challenge of our time... And we are failing.”

According to the WHO chief, of the 832 million vaccine doses administered, 82 percent have gone to high or upper middle-income countries, while only 0.2 percent have been sent to their low-income peers.

“In high-income countries alone, one in four people have received a vaccine, a ratio that drops precipitously to 1 in 500 in poorer countries,” he said.

With the number of new COVID-19 cases nearly doubling over the past two months and approaching the highest infection rate, virtual format summit brought to fore the sharp disparities in vaccine distribution.

World Trade Organization (WTO) director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala called such disparities “morally unconscionable.”

She said that addressing COVID-19 vaccine inequity is a task that confronts the world with daunting technical, logistical, policy and political hurdles.

However, they can be overcome in a practical, empirically informed manner.

While she said the impulse to conserve supply is understandable, securing personal safety is not enough: “We must find a way to share,” she insisted.

Ramping up production

A recent WTO vaccine equity event had some encouraging takeaways, said Iweala, making clear that there is untapped potential in developing countries to ramp up production, and that resources are available to bankroll such investment.

WTO members have reduced export restrictions from 109 in nearly 90 countries, to 51 in 62 countries, and with pragmatic engagement, she said they can find ways to bridge intellectual property rights concerns.

The summit brought together senior officials from the UN, government, business, the scientific community and civil society, who explored ways to guarantee equal access to the vaccine as a global public good, and to strengthen countries’ readiness for its distribution.

Tedros noted that rapidly spreading variants, the inconsistent use and premature easing of public health measures, fatigue with social restrictions and the “dramatic” inequity in vaccine coverage; all have led to an alarming spike in new cases and deaths.”

“This is a time for partnership, not patronage,” he stressed. “We have the tools to end this pandemic.”

He said the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, created by WHO and its partners, along with the COVAX Facility, can prevent mistakes of the past – when the world 40 years ago was slow to deploy lifesaving antiretrovirals to poor countries during the HIV and AIDS crisis.

Today, he said that while COVAX has distributed 40 million doses to 100 countries, this is nowhere near enough. WHO had expected to distribute 100 million doses by now. Some countries have received nothing, none have received enough – and some are not receiving second-round allocation on time.

“The problem is not getting vaccines out of COVAX. The problem is getting them in,” he added.

WHO is working with the Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to ramp up production and supply.

Tedros called on countries with enough vaccines to cover their populations “many times over” to make immediate donations to COVAX.

More broadly, it is vital to explore every option for boosting production – including voluntary licenses, technology pools and the waiver of certain intellectual property provisions – and to invest in local vaccine manufacturing.

WHO will continue to provide technical assistance and add manufacturing bases across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Coordinated global effort needed

Never in its 75-year history, he said, has the role of the United Nations been more important.

“We cannot defeat this virus one country at a time,” Tedros said. “We can only do it with a coordinated global effort, based on the principles of solidarity, equity and sharing.”

Munir Akram, president of ECOSOC, stressed that in addition to being a moral imperative, universal vaccine coverage is the only realistic way out of the pandemic.

He called for ramping up production, addressing intellectual property issues, supporting weak health systems in developing countries, removing export restrictions – and importantly – funding the WHO ACT Accelerator and COVAX facility.

Decisive steps toward universal access is a prerequisite for economic recovery, he said.

“No topic is as relevant or pertinent to the world today as that of vaccines,” said Volkan Bozkir, president of the General Assembly.

“Our efforts have not been perfect.We must finish what we have started,” he said.

He pressed governments to recommit to the principles of human solidarity and cooperation, stressing that progress made to date is the result of countries working with hundreds of companies and thousands of scientists – “multilateralism at its finest.”

Towards the goal of “vaccines for all” he also urged countries to extend resources to COVAX; invest in vaccine research, production and distribution; donate vaccines to countries in need and tackle misinformation to ensure everyone is educated on the benefits of inoculation.

“It is the job of the United Nations and its member states to act on these demands,” Bozkir said.

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