The COVID-19 Vaccine Should Be A Global Public Good
We can be certain about one thing when it comes to the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus: the only way to solve global problems is by coming up with global solutions. The rapid spread of the virus across the world during the first few months of 2020 highlighted the intrinsic ways the world is interconnected, the illusory nature of borders, and the shortcomings of local solutions to planet-wide problems. By the end of April 2021, over 130 million people around the world contracted COVID-19 and nearly 3 million died from it. Thirty percent of COVID-related deaths occurred in Latin America.
Meanwhile, humankind also achieved an unprecedented milestone: in less than a year, 235 COVID-19 vaccines were developed, of which 15 made it to Phase III clinical trials, and 5 are now being distributed throughout the world. This was achieved thanks to herculean efforts on the part of leaders in science and technology, plus tremendous investment on the part of public and private entities. However, individual countries’ demand for the vaccine has created competition for supply, which has, in turn, led to a new form of inequity. The People’s Vaccine warns that 9 out of 10 people in poor countries won’t be able to access a COVID-19 vaccine in 2021.
At Fundación Avina, we’ve observed that the new forms of inequity that have arisen out of the pandemic are making excluded sectors even more vulnerable, especially among countries in the global South. No country will be able to save itself from resurgences of the virus on its own. Even a country that manages to vaccinate the majority of its population will still be at risk if its neighboring countries have not been able to do the same, as the virus continues to spread and mutate into new variants. We’re aware of the fact that the vaccine is a scarce commodity and that producing and distributing enough doses for the entire world population will take time. Therefore, we must prioritize coming up with a strategy to ensure that the vaccine supply is considered a global public good. This is the only way to guarantee that the vaccine is distributed equitably and transparently to every corner of the globe. Currently, we have a long way to go: the United Nations warns that just 10 countries account for 75% of doses administered worldwide.
Against this backdrop of extreme inequity and lack of transparency, Fundación Avina finds it imperative to advocate for COVID-19 vaccines to be considered global public goods. Public goods are those goods and services that allow humans to live with dignity and which the entire population should enjoy in equal quantity and quality. Currently, the COVID-19 vaccine is a corporate asset, and millions of people around the world lack the means to obtain it. Its distribution is governed according to a commercial logic, without regard for the common good.
There are no multilateral institutions or mechanisms currently in existence that allow human beings to declare a good or service to be a global public good. Therefore, we citizens of the world must fully grasp the importance of vaccination as part of the solution to this health crisis and act accordingly to support the proposals and initiatives that do exist to ensure that the COVID-19 vaccine becomes a global public good. Some examples of these initiatives include: the licensing of patents, using similar mechanisms to those adopted for antiretroviral therapies for HIV; global aid instruments like the COVAX fund for equitable vaccine procurement and distribution; ethical agreements with the laboratories that produce vaccines; and agreements with the countries that have already acquired more doses than needed for their own populations.
Throughout 2020, several best practices were developed that led to more positive outcomes. The two most important ones have been transparency in public information and adherence to the science. At Fundación Avina, we recognize the importance of data and the ability to freely access and circulate it, in order to support decision–making. For this reason, we’ve developed a free and open data portal where users can look up a variety of information related to the pandemic, such as vaccination rates, number of confirmed cases, and deaths by country. The global vaccination tracker not only offers up-to-date information, but also helps us to visualize inequity in access to the vaccines. This is what propels our push to create global mechanisms to ensure that the vaccine reaches every corner of the planet.
We’ve observed that those countries that combine science-based decision–making with a system to provide the public with open and transparent information are the ones that have achieved better outcomes, both in terms of managing the crisis as well as allocating available vaccine doses. But we must go even further. That’s why we support transparency in the contracts that governments enter into with pharmaceutical companies. This is a critically important factor so that the people can monitor the agreements that their governments make to acquire vaccines, including prices and quantities. It concerns us that many of these corporations are operating with monopolistic and abusive practices guided by commercial logic. But citizens with access to the full picture via public contracts will be much better equipped to demand purchasing terms that are favorable to society and rooted in the common good. These types of terms are currently not being offered by corporations.
Finally, at Fundación Avina we believe that information is an essential component for encouraging citizen participation. Durante 2020, people throughout the world mobilized to share their dissatisfaction with the way the pandemic was managed. This reaction was related not only to the lack of reliable information, but also to the lack of participation and the general absence of citizens in the development of strategies to fight the pandemic. This is why it’s even more important to include data as a basis for decision–making and to involve civil society organizations in decision–making processes. Their support is vital to the success of any approach to managing the pandemic.
Addressing the issue of vaccine distribution can give us clues as to how to resolve other major global problems. The climate crisis is the greatest challenge that humankind has ever faced and our survival depends on our ability to overcome it. It’s also another global problem that can only be solved through a global approach. In this sense, the crisis that we are currently navigating as a planet can be seen as an opportunity to learn how to develop the global solutions that we so desperately need to ensure the continuity of life as we know it. At Fundación Avina, we know that many things have changed already, but many more things will have to change. Returning to the old way of doing things is simply not an option, as we see it. We need to come up with a new normal where inclusion, well-being, equity, and development in harmony with the environment will be the ways that we sustain life in the present as well as the future.