ECOSOC Special Meeting on 'A Vaccine for All'

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16-Apr-2021 02:09:05
Unequal vaccine distribution self-defeating, World Health Organization Chief tells Economic and Social Council’s Special Ministerial Meeting.

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Disparities, Inequity ‘Morally Unconscionable’, Says Head of World Trade Organization, Urging Practical Means to Tackle Hurdles

With the number of new COVID-19 cases around the world nearly doubling over the past two months — approaching the highest infection rate observed during the pandemic — the unequal distribution of vaccines is not only a moral outrage, but economically and epidemiologically self-defeating, the head of the United Nations health agency told a special ministerial meeting of the Economic and Social Council today.

“Vaccine equity is the challenge of our time,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), told the gathering in opening remarks. “And we are failing.”

Driving that point home, he reported that, of the 832 million vaccine doses administered, 82 per cent have gone to high- or upper‑middle-income countries, while only 0.2 per cent have been sent to their low-income counterparts. In high‑income countries alone, 1 in 4 people have been vaccinated, a ratio that drops precipitously to 1 in 500 in poorer countries.

The meeting — held in virtual format with the theme “A Vaccine for All” — brought together senior officials from the United Nations, Governments, business, the scientific community and civil society. They explored ways to guarantee equal access to vaccines as a global public good, and strengthen the readiness of countries for their distribution.

The Director-General said that rapidly spreading variants, the inconsistent application and premature easing of public health measures, fatigue with social restrictions and the dramatic inequity in vaccine coverage have all led to an alarming spike in new cases and deaths. “This is a time for partnership, not patronage,” he emphasized.

“We have the tools to end this pandemic,” he continued. The Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-Accelerator), created by WHO and its partners, as well as the COVAX Facility, can prevent mistakes of 40 years ago, when the world was slow to deploy life-saving antiretroviral drugs to poor countries during the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Today, COVAX has distributed 40 million doses to 100 countries, but that is nowhere near enough, he said, stressing that WHO had expected to have distributed 100 million doses by now. Some countries have received nothing, none have received enough, and some are not receiving second-round allocation on time, he noted. “The problem is not getting vaccines out of COVAX,” he added. “The problem is getting them in.”

He said WHO is working with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to scale up production and supply. A COVAX manufacturing task force has been formed, and promisingly, the African Union will form the New Partnership for African Manufacturing, he noted. It aims to build five vaccine production hubs on the continent, starting with three mRNA facilities in Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa. WHO is also developing regional regulatory capacity through the African Medicines Agency, he reported.

Calling upon countries with enough vaccine to cover their populations “many times over” to make immediate donations to COVAX, he underlined the vital need to explore every option for boosting production. They include voluntary licences, technology pools, flexibilities on trade-related intellectual property rights and waiving certain intellectual property provisions, and investing in local vaccine manufacturing. WHO will continue to provide technical assistance and to add manufacturing bases across Africa, Asia and Latin America, he said.

He urged all countries to carry out measures that work — surveillance, testing, contact‑tracing, supportive quarantine and compassionate care — emphasizing that never in the 75-year history of the United Nations has its role been more important. “We cannot defeat this virus one country at a time,” he stressed. “We can only do it with a coordinated global effort, based on the principles of solidarity, equity and sharing.”

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), described the vaccine disparities as “morally unconscionable”. Addressing inequity is a task that forces the world to grapple with daunting technical, logistical, policy and political hurdles, but they can be overcome in a practical, empirically informed manner, she said. While the impulse to conserve supply is understandable, securing personal safety is not enough, she emphasized. “We must find a way to share.”

A recent WTO vaccine equity event had some encouraging takeaways, she reported, making clear the untapped potential in developing countries to step up production, and the availability of resources to bankroll such investment. WTO members have reduced export restrictions from 109 in nearly 90 countries, to 51 in 62 countries, she said, adding that, with pragmatic engagement, they can find ways to bridge concerns over intellectual property rights. She went on to express hope that such efforts will lead to a framework agreement on trade and health, preferably before the twelfth WTO Ministerial Conference in December.

Munir Akram (Pakistan), President of the Economic and Social Council, said that, as well as being a moral imperative, universal vaccine coverage is the only realistic way out of the pandemic. He called for scaling up production, addressing intellectual property issues, supporting weak health systems, removing export restrictions — and importantly — funding the WHO ACT‑Accelerator and COVAX Facility. Decisive steps towards universal access to vaccines is a prerequisite for economic recovery, he stressed.

Volkan Bozkir (Turkey), President of the General Assembly, emphasized: “No topic is as relevant or pertinent to the world today as that of vaccines,” while acknowledging: “Our efforts have not been perfect.” He stressed that “we must finish what we have started”, pressing Governments to recommit to the principles of human solidarity and cooperation. The progress made to date is the result of countries working with hundreds of companies and thousands of scientists — “multilateralism at its finest” — he said.

With a view to ensuring the goal of “vaccines for all”, he continued, Member States should extend resources to COVAX; invest in vaccine research, production and distribution; donate vaccines to countries in need; and tackle misinformation to ensure that everyone is educated on the benefits of inoculation. “It is the job of the United Nations and its Member States to act on these demands,” he stressed.

Throughout the day, ministers and other senior officials explored ways to bridge financing gaps, build national capacities and maximize vaccine supply and rollout, as they engaged in two panel discussions addressing the related problems.

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