Omicron: Vaccine nationalism will only perpetuate the pandemic

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As wealthy nations continue to hoard vaccines, new dangerous COVID-19 variants will continue to emerge.

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The United Kingdom and wealthy European countries are in panic. Unsurprisingly, the massive hoarding of global vaccine supplies has enabled the emergence of dangerous new forms of COVID-19. And once again, wealthy countries are punishing victims of global vaccine inequality, closing borders to anyone in southern African countries.


Of course, the Omicron variant, as the World Health Organization names it, has not been found exclusively in southern Africa. Cases have been discovered in Asia and Europe, including the UK, but the Global South is being blamed, while the means to combat COVID-19 have been put in place. This is totally fine with how rich countries have dealt with the pandemic.

At each stage of their response, hopes of cooperation have been dashed. Western countries have been hoarding – and even unintentionally – hoarding vaccines instead of donating vaccines on a large scale or in a timely manner. For more than a year, the UK and EU have blocked a proposal by South Africa and India to suspend intellectual property on COVID-19 technologies, including vaccines. Most of the countries of the world believe that it is important to increase the production of vaccine to the level required to end this pandemic. But for leaders like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, promoting pharmaceutical monopolies is more important.

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Just seven percent of people in Africa are fully vaccinated and recent data shows that only one in four health workers in Africa are fully protected. This is not only morally bizarre, but also dangerous: it creates a breeding ground for new forms.

Timing matters in this pandemic. As Professor Sarah Gilbert of the University of Oxford warns, it is important to stop transmission to every corner of the world to prevent the virus from developing – and mutating dangerously.

As in all parts of the world, African governments have made mistakes in this pandemic. Indeed, my organization in South Africa, the Health Justice Initiative, has been vocal about our government’s errors, including vaccine contract transparency.

South Africa also faced severe political violence in mid-2021 and the government has changed health ministers twice in 12 months. This has been compounded by devastating job losses and a hunger crisis, often worsened by irrational travel restrictions.

But South Africa’s apartheid-era health system, enduring levels of poverty, and an inability to get a good amount of vaccines on time meant the government faced an impossible task. For the better part of 2021, South Africa was drip-fed vaccine supply, with global supplies limited by the Global North.

AstraZeneca was one of the first vaccines to arrive in Africa. But the propaganda questioning the efficacy and safety of the jab by Pfizer board member Scott Gottlieb, fueled by EU leaders, also fueled mistrust in the vaccine. Its use was halted in several African countries, and halted in South Africa, which also factored in the emerging beta version and Indian export restrictions.

The African Union negotiated a new deal with Johnson & Johnson through Aspen Pharmacare, a South African company. But of the 220 to 400 million vaccines that were promised, most still haven’t been delivered. Worse, when it mattered most, during our disastrous third wave in South Africa, Johnson & Johnson actually exported millions of vaccines that were filled and finished in highly vaccinated countries in South Africa, Europe and North America. they were finished.

In August, working with the South African government and Cape Town-based biotech company Afrigen, WHO began building the first global manufacturing hub to produce mRNA vaccines and share them with the world, dispelling racist perceptions that Africa is unable to manufacture vaccines safely. , Shame, Moderna and Pfizer have declined to share any information with the Hub.

So African scientists have to reverse-engineer the process themselves, which can take some time. Sensing the PR crisis, these companies are trying to bypass the hub with parallel partial licensing deals. Far from philanthropy, these deals appear to be designed to undermine WHO’s efforts.

Along the way, the secrecy of corporate vaccine contracts with extensive indemnity against delays, misinformation, and liability clauses has fueled mistrust of vaccine companies – an increasingly anti-oil vaccination movement and a demand by politicians to score points.

We need a different way of doing things. More than 100 states have been pressing for at least a year for an emergency suspension of intellectual property rights on technologies critical to end the pandemic. The waiver would make it easier for South Africa and other countries to produce vaccines, especially to increase supplies for all and save lives. But it has been repeatedly blocked by UK and EU countries for no good reason.

In contrast, South Africa has consistently been a constructive global participant in the pandemic – with hundreds volunteering for vaccine trials and its advanced scientific surveillance system helping to find new COVID-19 variants quickly.

If we do not want COVID-19 to continue to exacerbate the racist and colonialist world order, we need to change. And believe it or not, the UK and Europe will also benefit from this. Because you can’t enforce strict policies or build walls high enough to keep out the consequences of vaccine parity. We need to remove all hurdles and remove every barrier to vaccine production – and intellectual property is first among them. We need solidarity and cooperation, not knee-jerk travel restrictions.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.


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