Three Ways the US Can Promote Equity in Ending the COVID-19 Pandemic Globally

On April 15, 2021, the U.S. will join the Global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI) and co-host the launch of the Investment Opportunity for COVAX Advance Market Commitment.

Continued inequity in COVID-19 vaccination means virus mutations occur and newer variants emerge that may be resistant to currently available vaccines. Credit: United Nations.

By Ifeanyi Nsofor
ABUJA, Apr 2 2021 – As richer western nations continue hoarding COVID-19 vaccines to the detriment of poorer nations, there is some light on the horizon. On April 15, 2021, the U.S. will join the Global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI) and co-host the launch of the Investment Opportunity for COVAX Advance Market Commitment.
The aim of the event is to raise more funds to ensure at least 1.8 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines are available to 92 low-income nations. The U.S. recently donated $4 billion to COVAX and this new leadership role is highly commendable.

“The more the virus that causes COVID-19 is out there in the world, the more opportunities it has to evolve—and to develop new ways of fighting our defenses against it. If we don’t get the vaccine out to every corner of the planet, we’ll have to live with the possibility that a much worse strain of the virus will emerge.” 
Bill Gates

However, even if all the commitments are met from the launch, only 20% of people in poorer nations would be vaccinated. Furthermore, it could take until late 2022 for that population to be vaccinated.

Continued inequity in COVID-19 vaccination means virus mutations occur and newer variants emerge that may be resistant to currently available vaccines. Therefore, it is in the interest of every nation (both rich and poor) that everyone everywhere has a fair chance of being vaccinated simultaneously.

Bill Gates alluded to this in his recent Gates Notes: “The more the virus that causes COVID-19 is out there in the world, the more opportunities it has to evolve—and to develop new ways of fighting our defenses against it. If we don’t get the vaccine out to every corner of the planet, we’ll have to live with the possibility that a much worse strain of the virus will emerge.”

Simply put, to end this pandemic, we must vaccinate everyone, everywhere.

As the COVAX investment commitment launch approaches, these are three ways the U.S. especially can ensure more equity in ending the COVID-19 pandemic globally:

First, support the push by the World Trade Organization for temporary COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers so that vaccines can be manufactured locally in Africa and other parts of Asia. Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposed calls for the World Trade Organization to back a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights to speed coronavirus vaccine production in poor countries.

If this continues, it could take until late 2023 or even early 2024 to vaccinate all those eligible across Africa. President Joe Biden has to intervene to authorise these waivers so that vaccine production can take place simultaneously in rich and poor countries.

Local production of vaccine in African countries will also lead to reduction in logistics costs and waiting times in transporting the vaccines from the west to African countries. Egypt has concluded preclinical trial and would soon begin clinical trial for a vaccine locally.

Likewise, Johnson and Johnson pharmaceutical has pledged 400 million of their single-dose vaccine to the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team. Most of the supplies would be manufactured locally by Aspen Pharma in South Africa The U.S. should support more local production across African countries to speed up COVID-19 vaccination on the continent.

Second, block capital flight via corruption from poorer nations. Africa loses an estimated $50 billion yearly due to illicit financial flows. This theft amounts to a staggering $800 billion stolen from 1970 to 2008. These funds are stolen via electronic transfers.

Surely, banks and other agencies are aware as the theft is happening. The U.S. can work with banks and national anti-corruption agencies to stop funds being stolen. We do not have to wait for funds to be stolen and then go through all manners of legal and regulatory bottlenecks to repatriate the funds.

For example, no one really knows how much Nigeria’s former military dictator, General Abacha stole from the country. Twenty-three years after his death, funds he stole are still being repatriated back to the country.

The U.S. should also impose sanctions on banks, bank executives, politicians and civil servants who aid these thefts. With $50 billion yearly, Africa will not be dependent on richer western nations to vaccinate her people. Indeed, at $10 per dose, $50 billion will buy 5 billion doses of the Johnson and Johnson Covid-19 vaccine – more than enough to vaccinate all Africans three times over.

Third, ending the pandemic is not just about vaccines. Therapeutics, personal protective equipment and other commodities are essential. Sadly, the U.S. hoarded these at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. These hoardings must stop.

The African Union’s Africa Medical Supplies Platform (AMSP) chaired by Zimbabwean billionaire, Strive Masiyiwa has succeeded in creating a platform for linking manufacturers with African nations especially for pre-ordering of COVID-19 commodities, including vaccines. The AMSP is an innovative idea to make Africa self-sufficient in COVID-19 response. This should be supported by the U.S.

All lives are created equal. The U.S. government should deepen its global health leadership by ensuring that this COVAX launch is an opportunity to demonstrate the sanctity of lives everywhere. It is the equitable thing to do to end this global pandemic for everyone.

Dr. Ifeanyi McWilliams Nsofor is a graduate of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. He is a Senior New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute and a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity at George Washington University. Ifeanyi is the Director Policy and Advocacy at Nigeria Health Watch.