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End pandemic: Vaccinate both rich and poor

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - February 11, 2021 - 12:00am

The COVID-19 pandemic has become a truly global epidemic as it has now traveled to every continent and to almost every country in the world. The coming of several vaccines has given hope that this crisis can now be addressed and become a thing of the past.

The Financial Times has, however, sounded a drastic warning in its latest weekend editorial. It wrote:

“The two biggest developments since the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic occurred within weeks of each other. One was the arrival of effective vaccines. The other was the emergence of virus variants that threaten to defeat them. A global race is now underway between the two. Which comes out on top when – or if – the virus can truly be tamed. And the race will not be properly won unless it is won all over the world.”

It has become very clear that there is a wide gap in vaccine distribution between rich and poor countries. Rich countries have been buying up COVID-19 vaccine doses while poor countries are struggling to make them available to its citizens.

The threat of new variants of the virus is now seen emerging in several countries. In Brazil, a new variant shows signs of being able to evade naturally acquired immunity. In the United Kingdom, scientists have said that the more infectious strain now sweeping the UK was evolving further mutations that could threaten the effectiveness of current vaccines. In South Africa, a new variant there could infect people who already had the original virus or been vaccinated.

The arrival of more dangerous variants reinforces the critical need for vaccination efforts to advance simultaneously in all countries – rich or poor. It is evident that the pandemic must not be allowed to last longer in developing countries than in rich countries. As the Financial Times wrote: “…the arrival of more dangerous variants powerfully reinforces the message that vaccination efforts need to advance simultaneously in all countries… A lingering pool of cases in poorer countries risks giving birth to resistant strains that force richer economies to lock down and start vaccinating all over again.”

The biggest threat, in the future, is that if the infection is solved only in rich countries, there will be discrepancy between rich and poor countries. More mutations will occur.

Doctors Without Borders, an international medical NGO, has issued a statement that rich countries have started vaccinating lower risk groups in their respective countries while other countries have not even been able to vaccinate health care workers.

A study commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce estimated that the global economy would lose $9.2 trillion if developing countries do not have adequate access to COVID-19 vaccines. High income countries, as of this date, have ordered 4.2 billion vaccine doses. This is many times more than their population requires. Many rich countries have hedged their bets by ordering more than what they need in case some vaccines fail or some pharma companies are not able to deliver.

COVAX

COVAX is the abbreviation for “COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access.” It is a global initiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines led by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, the World Health Organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and other NGOs. It began in April 2020, an initiative of the World Health Organization  (WHO), the European Commission and the government of France as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its aim is to coordinate international resources to enable equitable access of COVID-19  diagnostics, treatment and vaccines. More than 190 countries representing 60 percent of the world’s population have joined COVAX. The United States under then President Trump refused to join the organization. However, the new American president has announced it would stay in the WHO and join COVAX.

The goal of COVAX is to secure and equitably allocate 2 billion doses by the end of 2021. The targets are WHO-defined priority populations, including frontline health care workers and other groups at high risks. Out of the 190-plus members, 92 countries are eligible for donor-funded doses.

The Philippines is set to receive 10 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine doses from the COVAX facility, mostly AstraZeneca. The government hopes to get around 5.6 million doses during the first quarter of 2021. The question is how many vaccine doses does the Philippines need.

When most of the population is immune to a disease, this provides indirect protection to those who are not immune. This is called “herd immunity.” The current estimate is that 80 percent of the population must be vaccinated so there can be herd immunity in this country. With a population of 110 million, we need to vaccinate 88 million Filipinos. Since two injections are needed per person, the Philippines needs 176 million doses of effective vaccines. This assumes that there will be new mutations that will require another round of vaccinations.

Vaccine nationalism

Vaccine nationalism is a situation where countries prioritize their own vaccine needs. In Europe, there is a threat by the European Commission to ban exports of vaccines until Europe’s needs are satisfied. In his last Christmas message, Pope Francis called on the world’s nations to share the COVID-19 vaccines, saying that the walls of nationalism must not be built in the face of a pandemic that knows no borders.

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An invitation to young writers:

Young Writers’ Hangouts via Zoom on Feb. 13 & 27 with Mailin Paterno and Rin Chupeco, 2-3 p.m. Contact writethingsph@gmail.com.  0945.2273216

Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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