Global vaccine inequity continues to be a pressing concern with many countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa, having severely limited access to COVID-19 vaccines. Dr. Blackstock, Health Justice’s founder and Executive Director, spoke on September 20, 2021, just steps from United Nations (U.N.) building in NYC where global leaders were convening for the U.N. General Assembly meeting, to speak out in support of global vaccine equity and to demand the US and other high-income countries support the Global South in developing the regional capacity to manufacture and disseminate COVID-19 vaccines. Below are Dr. Blackstock’s remarks:
Thank you to the organizers for the opportunity to speak with you today.
When I was young my parents would bring my twin sister and me to this very same spot to protest against racialized Apartheid in South Africa.
Today, I’m here to speak out against another form of apartheid—vaccine apartheid—which is also driven by the same systems of power, privilege and oppression as racialized apartheid.
As an HIV doctor and public health doctor—up until last year I was an Assistant Commissioner at the NYC Health Dept overseeing the city’s response to the HIV epidemic—I’ve had the opportunity to care for individuals, communities and an entire city—and this vantage point has shown me something that the pandemic has made abundantly clear—that our fates are inextricably linked. We saw that clearly as the Delta variant tore through India and ultimately became the cause of the 4th wave of the pandemic here in the US.
While boosters are being debated here in the US and other high-income countries, the World Health Organization reports that almost 6 billion vaccine doses have been administered globally, but 73% of all doses have been administered in just 10 countries. High-income countries have administered 61 times more doses per inhabitant than low-income countries.
This is important to me on many levels. My father was born in Jamaica and I have family who still live there. Just a stone’s throw away from the US and with a population of 3 million people, only about 200,000 people or 7% of the Jamaican population. Meanwhile, there are estimates that high income countries have procured around 1.5 billion excess doses.
Global vaccine inequity is a political choice. It does not have to be an inevitability.
These excess doses should be immediately donated to COVAX for urgent distribution to LICs and LMICs. We are already woefully behind in getting promised doses out. However, these charity donations are not enough. We need a sustainable way for countries in the Global South to make their own COVID-19 vaccines.
Vaccine manufacturing must be democratized.
In May of this year, President Biden put his support behind the TRIPS waiver which would waive intellectual property rights temporarily so that vaccine makers’ technology and know-how could be shared with other countries to manufacture life-saving vaccines. It would allow other producers to step in and make raw materials for export for all the current vaccines. It would also simplify agreements for eventual production of more doses.
As an HIV doctor, I want to emphasize that it is notable that the US put its support behind the TRIPS waiver. About two decades ago, when Brazil wanted to make its own generic versions of life-saving HIV medicines, the US government took legal action against Brazil, through the WTO, “claiming that Brazil’s production of generic HIV drugs breaks international laws on patent protection.” The US has frequently used threats of trade action against LICs and LMICs, to protect the US pharmaceutical industry.
So, Biden’s support for the waiver is an about-face from its previous stances. And the US is not alone in its support of the TRIPS waiver. The waiver is supported by over 150 countries. However, the largely influential European Union has not been supportive of the waiver.
For that reason, we call on President Biden to use the summit at the UN this week to persuade more countries especially those in the EU to support the TRIPS waiver and to cooperate with the US and other TRIPS waiver supporters in producing a draft of the WTO TRIPS waiver text.
But we know the TRIPS waiver alone will not solve COVID-19 vaccine inequity.
We urge President Biden to leverage the US government’s investments and legal authorities to transfer the technology from vaccine makers to support regional vaccine manufacturing in the Global South. For example, because its development was funded by us, US taxpayers, Biden could actually share Moderna’s recipe with the world. Moderna now has $12 billion in the bank. It’s time that Biden compel Moderna and other vaccine makers to share their technology more widely.
But, in order to manufacture more vaccines, we need LIC and LMIC need money.
We urge President to work with global leaders to identify and provide substantial funding for manufacturing vaccines in LICs and LMICs—funding that will support the building of new factories or retrofitting old ones and coordination of supply chains and other operational tasks at a global scale.
We will not be safe until everyone is safe.
Not ensuring global vaccine equity means more precious lives lost; it means prolonging the pandemic; it means potentially creating an even more dire situation with the emergence of more variants that could undermine existing vaccines’ efficacy.
We need global vaccine equity and we need it now.