The Future is Equal

Failure to vaccinate the world created perfect breeding ground for Omicron, say campaigners

Campaigners from the People’s Vaccine Alliance say the refusal of pharmaceutical companies to openly share their vaccine science and technology and the lack of action from rich countries to ensure access to vaccines globally have created the perfect breeding ground for new variants such as Omicron.

A year since a UK grandmother became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, great strides have been made to fully vaccinate over three billion people, but many poorer parts of the world have been left behind. While countries like the UK and Canada have had enough doses to fully vaccinate their entire populations, Sub-Saharan Africa has only received enough doses to vaccinate 1 in 8 people. The number of people in the UK who’ve had their third booster jab is almost the same as the total number of people fully vaccinated across all of the world’s poorest countries.

The People’s Vaccine Alliance, which has over 80 members including the African Alliance, Oxfam and UNAIDS, are calling for pharmaceutical firms and rich nations to change course before it is too late. This must include:

  • Immediate approval of the waiving of intellectual property rules to end the monopoly control of pharmaceutical firms over COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments. The World Trade Organization (WHO) General Council must urgently reconvene now, not next year, to finally get a waiver agreed.
  • All vaccines including new versions of vaccines designed to combat the Omicron variant to be declared global public goods, and vaccine recipes and know-how shared openly with producers worldwide via the WHO.

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS and Co-Chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, said: “Omicron is with us because we have failed to vaccinate the world. This should be a wake-up call.

“Business as usual has led to huge profits for pharmaceutical firms, but many people left unvaccinated meaning that this virus continues to mutate. It is the definition of madness to keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome. We need to press reset.

“We call on Pfizer, Moderna, BioNTech and others to change course. You have made huge profits in the last year. We now have vaccine billionaires. You don’t need to make any more money. Changing your vaccines to meet the challenge of Omicron is no good if your vaccine recipes are once again locked up behind a wall of profit and monopoly.”

The Alliance are also calling on rich nations to change course by using all their powers to insist on the open sharing of successful vaccine technology and know-how and to fund a huge expansion in vaccine production all over the world.

Back in March, the Alliance along with 77 epidemiologists from some of the world’s leading academic institutions warned that unless we vaccinate the world, we’d be at risk of virus mutations that could render our current vaccines ineffective.

Maaza Seyoum, of the African Alliance and People’s Vaccine Alliance Africa, said: “Fighting to buy up limited supplies of hugely expensive vaccines to protect your own citizens whilst ignoring the rest of the world will only lead to more variants, more mutations, more lockdowns and more lives lost. The same leaders, after failing the world repeatedly while allowing profiteering, are now laying the blame at the doorstep of the countries they have ignored.

“Pharmaceutical monopolies and profiteering have prevented vaccination in Africa and the rest of the developing world. It is time that pharmaceutical companies and rich nations finally put protecting people and putting an end to this pandemic ahead of profits, monopolies and self-defeating attempts to protect themselves whilst allowing this disease to rampage across the rest of the world.”

Oxfam’s Health Policy Manager Anna Marriott said: “With the new threat of the Omicron variant, it is clear that we cannot just booster our way out of the pandemic while leaving much of the developing world behind. Unless all countries are vaccinated as soon as possible we could see wave after wave of variants.

“What is the point in developing new vaccines in 100 days if they are then only sold in limited amounts to the highest bidder, once again leaving poor nations at the back of the queue?

“We cannot correct the mistakes of the past 21 months but we need rich countries to chart a new path forward in which they step up and insist the pharmaceutical companies start sharing their science and technology with qualified manufacturers around the world, so we can vaccinate people in all countries and finally end the pandemic.”

In a statement sent to European Union negotiators and member states this week, the People’s Vaccine Alliance joined with more than 170 charities, NGOs, unions and campaign groups – including ONE campaign and the International Union of Food Workers – in criticising the EU’s opposition to a waiver of intellectual property rules. The statement said that “the identification of the Omicron variant only heightens the urgency of a change in approach and is evidence of why the EU’s position is a threat to us all”. 

Last week Norway was the latest of more than 100 countries to offer their support for the waiver. Meanwhile President Emmanuel Macron withdraw France’s earlier support, a decision the Alliance has called ludicrous and dangerous in the face of the new variant.

John Mark Mwanika, ITF Urban Transport Chair, Uganda, said: “It’s not only shameful that six times more booster shots are being administered daily than primary doses in low-income countries, it’s an enormous risk to ending the pandemic globally.

“It is no coincidence that the new Omicron variant was first discovered by scientists in countries which have been denied the right to produce their own vaccines. We are in a global emergency and workers are paying the price, particularly in the Global South.”

The People’s Vaccine Alliance has created a virtual memorial wall to honour and remember those who have lost their lives to COVID-19, and to demand that leaders act to prevent more deaths.

 

Notes to editors:

  • The People’s Vaccine Alliance has created a virtual memorial wall will be revealed at peoplesvaccine.org/memorial-wall on 8 December, marking a year since the first vaccine was administered.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa countries have received enough doses to fully vaccinate 136,765,144 people, 12.8 per cent of the total population or 1 in 8, according to Airfinity data analysed by the People’s Vaccine Alliance.
  • Figures for how many vaccines the UK and other Western countries have received are from Airfinity.
  • According to Our World in Data 9 million people in Low Income Countries are fully vaccinated. As of 2 December, the UK had administered booster doses to just over 19 million people, according to: https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/details/vaccinations
  • Information on the survey of epidemiologists carried out by the People’s Vaccine Alliance in March available here.
  • The full statement to the EU and list of signatories is available here.
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