Global vaccine solidarity is needed

Global cooperation has made it possible to start Covid-19 vaccination programmes merely a year after the pandemic broke out. ‘The second wave of infection in Africa makes it a matter of urgency to ensure that this historic breakthrough also benefits poor countries,’ said Minister of International Development Dag-Inge Ulstein.

This week marks exactly a year since the first death in China from Covid-19 was reported. Over the past twelve months, more than 87 million people around the world have tested positive for the virus and the pandemic has claimed the lives of almost two million people so far. The real figures are probably much higher, due to a lack of testing and subsequent underreporting.

Alongside the rising death toll, intense vaccine research has led to the development of multiple promising Covid-19 vaccines. Forty-two countries have launched Covid-19 vaccination programmes. According to the World Health Organization, 36 of these are wealthy countries while six are defined as middle-income countries.

‘The vaccine development process has been accelerated this time, largely because the pandemic has affected all countries, rich and poor alike. If everything goes according to plan, all Norwegian adults who want the vaccine will receive it before summer. While this is very positive, it is just as important to ensure the same protection for the poor populations in countries such as Ethiopia, Malawi and Tanzania,’ said Mr Ulstein.

The spread of the pandemic on the African continent is of particular concern. Even though the death toll remains far lower than in many Western countries, the infection rates are increasing steadily. On Sunday, Africa passed a grim milestone: The continent now has three million confirmed Covid-19 cases, and over 72 000 people have died.

‘Each week we get reports of increases in the number of confirmed cases in countries such as Malawi and Zambia. This is happening at the same time that South Africa has been affected by a new strain of the virus which is spreading more rapidly, to neighbouring countries as well. This is a reminder that the situation in Africa can quickly change. There is little help in vaccinating our own population if the virus continues to spread and mutate in other parts of the world,’ said Mr Ulstein.

The minister is also very concerned about the impacts that the pandemic and the accompanying restrictions are having on the poorest population groups. A new wave of infection could be disastrous for those who are most vulnerable.

South Africa now has over one million confirmed cases of Covid-19, and is the most severely afflicted country on the African continent.

‘The global solutions will ensure that vaccines are a common good and are not reserved exclusively for the wealthy parts of the world. A number of countries are now trying to use their purchasing power to move ahead in the queue by offering a higher price for the vaccine, at the expense of the global procurement scheme. This is not a wise approach. We know that the virus is mutating and that we must fight it at a global level,’ said Mr Ulstein.

Under the COVAX Facility, two billion vaccine doses are to be distributed to the 92 poorest countries in the world. This will be enough to reach the initial goal of vaccinating 20 % of the population, especially those most at risk and health personnel. But it is not enough to achieve herd immunity, and African leaders have therefore set a target of 60 % vaccine coverage, which is approximately the same as the Norwegian target.

‘A situation in which all countries are trying to outbid each other in the competition for vaccines leaves us teetering on the edge of the moral abyss. We have a unique opportunity now to ensure that enough people in all countries can be vaccinated, but to achieve this we must adhere firmly to a global approach and not fall prey to the “vaccine nationalism” we have long warned against,’ said Mr Ulstein.

He believes it is essential to focus on producing as many vaccine doses as possible, in order to better balance supply with demand. In addition, poor countries must be guaranteed as low a price as possible.

‘We need to increase production capacity globally to ensure equitable distribution of Covid-19 medicines and vaccines. We must also ensure that the cost of producing vaccines and medicines is as low as possible for the poorest countries. This is not the time to be thinking about profiting from the pandemic,’ said Mr Ulstein.