To beat COVID-19, vaccine apartheid must end

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It’s no secret that those who live in richer countries have more access to resources than the global poor. Adequate food, clean water and shelter –as much as we struggle with supply in the United States, these basics are far less accessible in extremely poor countries. Although there are so many resources on Earth that wealthy people in the United States can afford to waste countless pounds of food, the wealthy countries steal and hoard resources from poorer, resource-rich countries in Latin America, South Asia and Africa. This inequity also extends to healthcare. The world’s wealthy countries have far more access to vaccines than the global poor — so much so that we let vaccines go to waste — while at the same time, only three countries in the continent of Africa — Morocco, Rwanda and Tunisia — are more than 50% fully vaccinated.  

This economic and racial inequity plays out any time you analyze a global map of vaccination rates. For example, in South America, wealthier, whiter countries like Argentina (78% fully vaccinated) and Chile (90%) are on average far more vaccinated than poor, less white countries like Bolivia (46%) and Paraguay (44%). Another example is the extremely low vaccination rates in the poor, predominantly Black countries of the Caribbean such as Saint Lucia (28%) and Jamaica (21%) and Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, is only 0.7% fully vaccinated.  

We can also look to Europe. Western European countries, such as Italy (71%), France (77%) and Spain (81%) are wealthier and more vaccinated than their Eastern counterparts such as Serbia (47%), Romania (41%) and Ukraine (33%). The Middle East provides another example: Wealthy Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia (69%) and the United Arab Emirates (96%) are far more vaccinated than poor, war-torn countries like Syria (5.5%) and Yemen (1.2%). And if we go to the South Pacific, Australia and New Zealand, majority white Western nations, are about 80% vaccinated, contrasted with poorer, Melanesian nations like the Solomon Islands (11%) and Papua New Guinea (2.6%).  

This is happening because companies like Pfizer and Moderna have been unwilling to give up the patents they have on the mRNA vaccine technology, artificially limiting the vaccine supply so that they can continue to make money off of them. Western and white countries have had more access to vaccines because they can afford to pay for them, whereas countries like Angola and Yemen can’t. There has been a movement to waive the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver and let poorer countries access the vaccine technology that Pfizer and Moderna have used to manufacture their vaccines. The leadership of Pfizer has come out vehemently against this TRIPS waiver, and former Conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose party was thankfully defeated by Olaf Scholz and the Social Democratic Party, led her country in blocking the TRIPS waiver, even after Joe Biden publicly called for it. Chancellor Scholz has not publicly committed to the TRIPS waiver, but talks have resumed between Germany and South Africa, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has already expressed optimism over the negotiations.  

Vaccine inequity will continue to prolong this pandemic. The Delta variant, which appeared in April 2021, came about in India, a country that was, at the time, around 10% fully vaccinated. And the Omicron variant appeared in South Africa, which is about 25% fully vaccinated. If Americans continue to selfishly refuse vaccines and the wealthy nations of the world refuse to let poor countries access the technology they need, more variants will appear, which will make the pandemic last longer and longer.  

Although the TRIPS waiver will not be enough on its own to defeat vaccine inequity and this pandemic, it will go a long way in sharing the resources we have with the Global South so that people in poor, Black and war-torn countries can be protected from a deadly respiratory illness. If we don’t want to do it because it will help the global poor, which we should, it’s still in our own best interests to share our vaccines. We must end vaccine apartheid immediately.