As wealthy nations continue hoarding vaccines, new dangerous COVID-19 variants will continue emerging.

  • Fatima Hassan Director of Health Justice Initiative
Oxfam activists with big head caricatures of G7 leaders pretend to fight over a COVID-19 vaccine during a protest on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Cornwall, Britain, on June 11, 2021 [File: Reuters/Peter Nicholls]

The United Kingdom and wealthy European nations are in a panic. Unsurprisingly, hoarding huge swaths of the global vaccine supply has enabled the emergence of dangerous new variants of COVID-19. And once again, rich countries are punishing the victims of global vaccine inequality by slamming shut the borders to anyone from southern African nations.

Of course, the Omicron variant, as the World Health Organization has named it, has not exclusively been found in Southern Africa. Cases have been discovered in Asia and Europe, including in the UK, but the Global South is being blamed for it, while the means to deal with COVID-19 have been kept from it. This is perfectly fitting with how rich countries have dealt with the pandemic.

At each stage of their response, hopes for collaboration have been junked. Western nations have hoarded – and even binned – vaccines rather than donate them on scale, or on time. For more than a year, the UK and European Union have blocked a proposal from South Africa and India to suspend intellectual property on COVID -19 technologies including vaccines. Most countries in the world recognise this is crucial for scaling up vaccine production to levels needed to end this pandemic. But to leaders like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, propping up pharmaceutical monopolies is more important.

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

Timing matters in this pandemic. As Professor Sarah Gilbert of the University of Oxford has warned, stopping transmission in every corner of the world is vital to stop the virus from evolving – and mutating dangerously.

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

South Africa also had to contend with serious 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, worsened by often irrational travel bans.

But South Africa’s lingering apartheid-era health system, enduring levels of poverty, and year-long inability to obtain decent amounts of vaccines on time meant the government faced an impossible task. For the better part of 2021, with limited global supplies siphoned by the Global North, South Africa was drip-fed vaccine supplies.

AstraZeneca was at first one of the few vaccines trickling into Africa. But disinformation from Pfizer board member Scott Gottlieb questioning the jab’s efficacy and safety, exacerbated by EU leaders, also led to mistrust in the vaccine. Its use was then paused in many African countries, and halted in South Africa, with the emerging Beta variant and Indian export restrictions also factors.

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

In August, working with the South African government and Cape Town-based biotech company Afrigen, the WHO started building the first global manufacturing hub to produce mRNA vaccines and share them with the world, dispelling the racist notion that Africa is unable to safely manufacture vaccines. Shamefully, Moderna and Pfizer have refused to share any knowledge with the hub.

Reverse Engineering

So African scientists are having to reverse-engineer the process themselves, which could take some time. Sensing a PR crisis, these companies are trying to bypass the hub with parallel partial licensing deals. Far from benevolence, these deals seem designed to undermine the WHO’s efforts.

Along the way, the litany of delays, misinformation, and the secrecy of corporate vaccine contracts with broad indemnification against liability clauses, have fuelled mistrust of vaccine companies – aided by an increasingly well-oiled anti-vaccine movement and politicians seeking 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 crucial to end the pandemic. The waiver would make it easier for South Africa and other countries to produce vaccines, especially to scale up supplies for everyone and save lives. But it has been blocked repeatedly by the UK and EU countries, for no good reason.

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

If we do not want COVID-19 to continue exacerbating the racist and colonial world order, we need change. And believe it or not, it would benefit the UK and Europe, too. Because you cannot impose rigid policies or build high enough walls to keep the consequences of vaccine inequality out. We need to pull out all of the stops and remove every barrier to vaccine production – and intellectual property is first among them. We need solidarity and cooperation, not knee-jerk travel bans.

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