In early August, the United States reached its goal of vaccinating 70% of adults—a milestone in working to end the pandemic. But in the rest of the world, more than 5.5 billion people remain unvaccinated—and not by choice.
In Africa, where I serve as public education and advocacy coordinator for AFSC, only 1.5% of people have received vaccines. The rest wait in anticipation as the virus continues to infect, kill, displace, and disorient communities. As the delta variant surged in July, COVID-19 infection rates on the continent rose by 80%. Deaths have increased by 89%.
People who aren’t infected still face poverty, hunger, and other severe challenges. The pandemic has left many without income, shut down economies, and undermined productivity and trade in most African countries. The delta variant threatens to plunge the continent into deeper economic recession. The World Health Organization (WHO) projects that the rate of current vaccines global production puts African countries at greater risk of coronavirus devastation until 2024.
In my home country of Kenya, a common phrase is "if we don't die of the coronavirus, we may die of hunger."
The urgent need to expand vaccine production
By now, it should be common knowledge that providing vaccines for all—and investing in initiatives to prevent and mitigate future variants—is not only in Africa's interest. It’s important for our entire global community, including the United States.
Access to COVID-19 vaccines is also human rights issue. The gap in access between low and high-income countries has amounted to vaccine apartheid. Most nations where a majority of citizens cannot access vaccines—including African countries, India, and Brazil—are largely home to people of color.
The wealthy nations that have vaccinated over half of their populations cannot rest until people worldwide are vaccinated. The rapid spread of the delta variant is a consequence of the international community's failure to ensure vaccines were made available to all people as quickly as possible. It’s a clear example of how unvaccinated populations can undermine vaccine efficacy for all.
To protect our entire global community, we must vastly expand the production of vaccines immediately. Existing production by a few companies cannot meet the world's demand for billions of doses. We need more companies in many countries to manufacture vaccines.
To scale up production to meet demand, the World Trade Organization must temporarily waive certain intellectual property rules under what’s known as the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). That waiver would compel companies such as Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson to share technology with other countries to produce the vaccine.
More than 140 countries, including the United States, support the TRIPS waiver to allow mass production of vaccines. But many other high-income countries—including Germany, Canada, and the U.K.—oppose the waiver, prioritizing profits for pharmaceutical companies over saving lives. Ultimately these countries undermine the global struggle to end the spread of this virus and future mutations—to deadly effect.
What’s more, as billions of people worldwide await the vaccine, some countries with high vaccination rates have begun administering third doses—or boosters—to residents, while refusing to share vaccine technology or supply. On Aug. 4, the WHO called for a halt on boosters to help close the gap in vaccine access between rich and developing nations.
"I understand the concern of all governments to protect their people from the Delta variant. But we cannot accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Calling for U.S. leadership
The United States must do more to ensure universal vaccine access for all. So far, the U.S. has announced it will donate 500 million doses of vaccines globally. Some will go to African countries. While donations are much appreciated, they are a fraction of what’s needed to meet demand.
And while it was welcome news that the U.S. announced its support for the TRIPS waiver, the Biden administration has done little since to advance the waiver at the WTO. The administration must lead WTO members to fast-track the waiver to save lives. It must also compel pharmaceutical companies to share their technology with other companies.
Over the past year, constant advocacy from various groups—including the faith community, humanitarian agencies, and governments from around the world—have helped secure funding to revive economies in low and middle-income countries. Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund released $650 billion worth of reserve funds—known as “Special Drawing Rights"—that countries can use to pay for vaccines and other tools to stop the virus.
But it’s still not enough. That’s why we’re urging the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that would provide American support for issuing $2 trillion in Special Drawing Rights to assist countries. The House has already voted to support the measure, and we hope the Senate will do the same.
The phrase "no one is safe until we all are" has never resonated more than in this COVID-19 era. The U.S. and world leaders must step up to end this pandemic—and put human lives over corporate profits. The vaccine needs to reach every person on our planet as quickly as possible. The price we pay for failing to act another day is much too great.