If wealthy countries think the Covid-19 pandemic is over, as U.S. President Joe Biden claimed earlier this week, they should do everything in their power to help low-income nations get to that point as well, a World Health Organization official said Friday.
"The best chance to stop this pandemic is to make vaccines available for everyone, everywhere."
In an interview, WHO senior adviser Bruce Aylward told Reuters: "When I hear them say, 'Well, we're so comfortable here,' it's like, 'Great, now you can really help us get the rest of the world done.'"
"If you go to sleep right now and this wave hits us in three months... God—blood on your hands," he added, urging rich nations not to retreat amid what remains an "acute global emergency," in the words of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Aylward's comments come just days after Biden said "the pandemic is over"—an assertion he made as Covid-19 kills nearly 11,000 people across the planet each week, including roughly 3,000 in the U.S. alone. More than 1 million people worldwide died from the disease during the first eight months of 2022, and the number of fatalities caused directly and indirectly by the ongoing public health crisis that began in late 2019 surpassed 15 million earlier this year.
According to Reuters, "Aylward said that the group he coordinates, which focuses on equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, treatments, and tests worldwide, is not yet ready to move out of the emergency phase of tackling the pandemic and that countries need to be ready and have treatments in place for any further waves of infection."
Experts are anticipating a coronavirus surge this fall and winter that could infect hundreds of millions of people around the world, potentially leading to millions of hospitalizations and hundreds of thousands of additional deaths.
While the U.S. has had comparatively good access to vaccines, tests, and treatments for the duration of the pandemic, the money undergirding their free provision is disappearing. Although Biden has pleaded with Congress to authorize billions of dollars in additional spending—including funds that would be directed toward international efforts—Senate Republicans have refused, and his recent downplaying of the pandemic has bolstered their demands for austerity.
People in impoverished countries, meanwhile, have never had the same access to lifesaving Covid-19 medical tools. Billions of people in Africa and other parts of the Global South remain completely unprotected due to a combination of dose hoarding by high-income nations and knowledge hoarding by pharmaceutical corporations.
This deadly inequality was further cemented in June when Big Pharma-aligned policymakers—most of them from highly vaccinated parts of Europe—defeated a widely supported proposal to temporarily waive the World Trade Organization's (WTO) corporate-friendly intellectual property rules, which sought to unleash generic production and boost the global supply of jabs, diagnostics, and therapeutics.
Last week, The Lancet's Covid-19 commission declared that "widespread failures during the Covid-19 pandemic at multiple levels worldwide have led to millions of preventable deaths and a reversal in progress towards sustainable development for many countries."
In a recent tweet, economist Philip Schellekens wrote, "Not only is the pandemic not over, the world remains underprepared to deal with the adverse contingency of a highly contagious and potentially more lethal variant."
Epidemiologists have long warned that the persistence of a massive inoculation gap between rich and poor countries allows the coronavirus to keep circulating and mutating, increasing the likelihood of a vaccine-resistant variant emerging.
"The best chance to stop this pandemic is to make vaccines available for everyone, everywhere," a pair of experts wrote in Lancet Infectious Diseases earlier this week. "The efforts to provide booster doses should be balanced with the efforts to attain vaccine equity."
As Reuters reported:
Aylward coordinates the ACT-Accelerator, a partnership between WHO and other global health bodies to help poorer countries access Covid-19 tools. The effort, which includes the vaccine-focused COVAX, has reached billions of people worldwide but has faced criticism for not acting quickly enough. There had been some speculation that the effort may wind up this autumn, but Aylward said it was simply changing its focus as the pandemic changes.
Over the next six months, the partnership will aim particularly at delivering vaccines to the roughly one-quarter of the world's healthcare workers and elderly who have still not had a shot, as well as on improving access to test-and-treat particularly with Pfizer's Paxlovid, he said.
It will also look to the future as Covid is "here to stay," and unless systems are put in place, support will collapse once other industrialized nations also think the pandemic is over, said Aylward.
Although several rich countries refused to support the popular campaign to suspend coronavirus-related patents at the WTO—adopting a watered-down alternative that critics have described as worse than the status quo—other initiatives to expand vaccine manufacturing are underway.
That includes the WHO's mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub, which seeks to facilitate the sharing of know-how and ramp up local production capacity in developing countries.
The first consortium—based at Afrigen Biologics in Cape Town, South Africa—has successfully replicated the mRNA Covid-19 vaccine co-created by Moderna and the U.S. National Institutes of Health despite Big Pharma's ruthless attempt to undermine their work.
As of April, 15 manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries have been named as "spokes," or recipients of mRNA technology and training from the Afrigen hub. In addition, the WHO has partnered with South Korea to establish a global teaching facility that can share best practices.
U.S. government scientists in July agreed to share technical knowledge related to the development of next-generation mRNA vaccines and treatments with Afrigen in an effort to end the current pandemic and combat other infectious diseases and cancer.
During a Friday event at the United Nations General Assembly hosted by the People's Vaccine Alliance, Public Citizen, UNAIDS, Global Citizen, Medicines Patent Pool, Afrigen, and South Africa's Health Department, Assistant U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Loyce Pace said that global health "cannot be just about charity" and reiterated that the Biden administration is "committed to" decentralized mRNA vaccine production.
This content originally appeared on Common Dreams - Breaking News & Views for the Progressive Community and was authored by Kenny Stancil.