This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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Across developed countries, the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel is nearing for the first time.
There remains so much to be done. We remain numb from loss. We are still losing so many loved ones. But the sight of grandparents and parents in countries such as the United Kingdom getting a vaccine against COVID-19 offers great hope; I cannot begin to describe the relief I felt as my mum, who lives there, got her jab last week.
The inoculation programmes in countries such as the United Kingdom are impressive, and on track to achieve herd immunity this year. And yet for the majority of the world, that same hope is yet to be seen.
One in ten people in the majority of poor countries will be lucky to get a vaccine this year. One hundred and thirty countries have not yet received a single dose of vaccine, while ten of the richest countries have administered 75% of all vaccinations according to the UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
Vaccine apartheid is unfolding before our eyes.
For poor countries, it means more lives and livelihoods lost. Northeastern University estimates twice the number of deaths from COVID-19 in a scenario in which rich countries monopolise vaccines. But this isn’t just about poor countries. In our interconnected world, we’re all at risk.
Read more on the Forum Network: The Haves and Have-Nots: The geopolitical dilemma of COVID vaccine equity by Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, Chief Strategist, CONVINCE Africa
Consider the health implications of mutations: the longer we let the virus spread around the world, “the higher is the risk that the virus will evolve to an extent that our vaccines, treatments and tests are no longer effective”, says Jeremy Farrar, who leads the Wellcome Trust.
Consider the economics: the International Chamber of Commerce estimates that nearly half of the USD 9 trillion blowback to the global economy will hit rich countries, if developing countries are largely shut out from the vaccine. In such a scenario, the United States alone would stand to see its GDP reduced by 6.45%—equivalent to an economic hit of USD 1.3 trillion dollars.
Whether we live in New York, Nairobi or New Delhi our fates are intertwined.
We now need a herculean effort and serious plan from political leaders—to come together to fight the common threat of the disease globally, not just in rich countries and for the richest people.
That means we need to make billions more safe and effective vaccines, and swiftly avail them to everyone on the planet, free of charge. Every qualified manufacturer on the planet capable of producing safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, including those in the developing world, should be making them.
Yet our current global approach, which is artificially restricting supply, centres on pharmaceutical corporations making profitable deals with rich governments, while offering charity to poor nations. Other deals are also being made, including by China and Russia, whose vaccines should be taken seriously.
COVAX, a vaccine initiative backed by over 190 countries, is an important charitable step which on paper seeks to get 20% of people vaccinated in poor countries by the end of 2021. Developing countries cannot afford but to welcome this. But can we imagine any rich country leader saying that vaccinating 20% of their people is acceptable?
So why would it be acceptable for so much of the world?
Moreover, supply constraints are already troubling expectations. The European Union is set to miss out on half the AstraZeneca doses it is meant to get in the second quarter of this year. Canada is taking doses from COVAX that could be going to developing countries, despite having already secured more than five times the vaccines it needs for each Canadian.
Changing course requires us to go beyond business-as-usual.
It is now essential to share the science, knowhow and technology—the vaccine recipes—with the world, so more producers can get more vaccines made. Not least as over USD 100 billion of taxpayers’ cash has been invested in that same research. The vaccine recipes should not be kept a secret by a few pharmaceutical firms.
That’s the call of the People’s Vaccine, backed by political and economic leaders, health experts and civic organisations across the world, such as the President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz.
Rich country leaders and policymakers can yet deliver on this.
They must stop blocking a World Trade Organization resolution—proposed by South Africa and India, and supported by developing countries worldwide—to waive patents on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments during the pandemic.
And they must insist pharmaceutical corporations such as Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca/Oxford and Johnson & Johnson share their vaccine recipes with the World Health Organization (WHO) COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (CTAP). This would enable the transfer of technology needed so producers, carefully vetted by the WHO, can also make COVID-19 vaccines.
Just imagine what this would do. “If that can be done, then immediately overnight every continent will have dozens of companies who would be able to produce these vaccines,” said Abdul Muktadir, the chief of pharma company Incepta, which already makes vaccines against hepatitis, flu, meningitis, rabies, tetanus and measles.
The WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus believes the CTAP can “overcome this artificial scarcity” we face and has made the case for why “waiving patents temporarily won’t mean innovators miss out”. Dr Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to President Biden, has personally endorsed the CTAP.
Indeed, as new polls show, the call to ensure vaccine recipes are publicly shared is greatly supported by the public. Seventy percent of the French public believe so. Seventy-four percent of people in Britain believe the United Kingdom government should prevent specific companies having monopolies on Covid vaccines.
In this great hour of need for humanity, vaccine monopolies are at odds with our collective security, the economic recovery and our right to health.
Everyone deserves to see the light at the end of the tunnel, like people in the United Kingdom. We now need a People’s Vaccine to give a shot of hope to the world, and end this painful pandemic.
Read COVID-19 vaccines for developing countries: An equal shot at recovery and visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub to browse hundreds of others policy responses
Find out more about the OECD’s work on The race to vaccinate
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