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Global Covid-19 Vaccine Equity Should Get a ‘Booster’ Too

A Third Shot in Rich Countries Undermines Legal Obligations to Cooperate

Caja con viales vacíos de las vacunas Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna y AstraZeneca contra el COVID-19 durante una campaña de vacunación en el vacunatorio de Ebersberg, Alemania, el 15 de mayo de 2021. © 2021 Matthias Schrader/AP Images © 2021 Matthias Schrader/AP Images

The United States government’s announcement this week that eligible people can receive a third “booster” shot of Moderna or Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines comes as less than two percent of people in low-income countries have received even a single dose of any vaccine. Israel, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have either begun providing boosters or are planning to.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reacted swiftly, calling for a moratorium on third shots. Director-general Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus said, “We cannot accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it.” Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s head of emergencies, drew a visual comparison, handing out extra life jackets to people who already have them, leaving others to drown.

The race for boosters is another chapter in the sordid story of global vaccine shortages and inequities. Horror continues to unfold as the delta variant rips through populations that have no access to vaccines and guts health systems.

While scientists developed vaccines at unprecedented speed, the behavior of many of the world’s richest governments and pharmaceutical corporations continues to undermine universal, equitable, and affordable access to those vaccines.

Governments invested tens of billions of dollars of public funds in vaccine development but so far have failed to cooperate and share the benefits of scientific research internationally. Instead of conditioning their funds in ways to make vaccines widely available and affordable, powerful governments negotiated opaque bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies or other entities. They also reserved vaccine doses largely for their own populations and walked back pledges for more equitable distribution.

International human rights law obliges governments to refrain from actions that frustrate the efforts of other governments to comply with their human rights obligations, including when negotiating international agreements or participating in decisions as members of international organizations. Yet, when rich governments impede access to vaccines, either by buying up more than is equitable or by hamstringing speedier vaccine manufacturing and distribution through blocking intellectual property waivers at the World Trade Organization, that is what is happening.

Wealthy governments are compounding vaccine shortage and inequities by planning to use another billion doses as “boosters” rather than focusing on distributing more vaccines around the world.

Severe Covid-19 symptoms and death can be prevented with vaccines. By opting for boosters, the US and other rich governments are making a policy choice that would result in more deaths and disease.

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