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Covid-19 Vaccine Access is a Right, Not a Privilege

Two Years in, Vaccine Divide Prolongs the Pandemic

People wait in a queue to receive the Covid-19 vaccine at an inoculation center, in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, February 25, 2022.  © 2022 Suvra Kanti Das/Sipa via AP Images

This piece is the fourth in a series marking the two year anniversary of the Covid-19 pandemic. Find more of our work documenting the global response to the coronavirus here.

As we enter another year of this wretched pandemic that has killed more than 6 million the divide between the vaccine haves and have-nots is not only huge, it’s growing.

Across the US and Europe, where governments outbid others to procure sufficient supplies of vaccines for their populations, people are starting to gather with friends and family and travel more freely, planning long-awaited vacations to break out of “pandemic fatigue.” But there are billions of people around the world, including health workers, still waiting to be fully vaccinated and trapped in the cycle of outbreaks, lockdowns, disease, and death. The vaccine have-nots continue to wait, anxious, tired, only dreaming about traveling to reunite with loved ones or unable to attend funerals of those they lost.

This divide was not an inevitable consequence of the pandemic. It can and should be bridged.

For over 17 months, governments of high-income countries like the US, Switzerland, and EU member states have appeared at the World Trade Organization (WTO) assuring that the pharmaceutical industry would deliver on global availability of vaccines, testing, and treatments. But the rules that make it difficult to expand and diversify production of Covid-19 testing, treatments, and vaccines are still in place and a proposal to temporarily waive these rules, backed by over 100 low-and-middle income governments, remains stalled at the WTO.

Meanwhile, BioNTech, Pfizer, and Moderna refused to share their technology with the World Health Organization (WHO) mRNA technology hub and have yet to undertake more widespread technology transfers even though experts identified over 100 global manufacturers capable of producing mRNA vaccines in a short period. In addition, a complete lack of transparency over vaccine supplies and delivery schedules has impeded governments’ ability to plan vaccine distribution and rollouts.

We need inspired and daring leadership by high-income governments, pharmaceutical companies, and their investors to move past this impasse. Too often, corporate boardrooms and investors measure success solely in terms of profits. The actual and potential human rights harms of delaying universal access to vaccines and treatments are catastrophic. Governments should swiftly adopt the TRIPS waiver and work with investors to ensure pharmaceutical companies share technology and commit to transparency, at least publishing projected delivery schedules for lifesaving vaccines and treatments. We can’t afford another year of the pandemic with more promises of access in the distant future.

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