By Gordon Brown
EDINBURGH, Scotland ( Project Syndicate )—The damage caused by COVID-19—exacerbated by the continued appearance of new variants, most recently Omicron —has been catastrophic. More than 5 million lives world-wide have already been lost to COVID-19, and with confirmed cases on track to swell from 260 million today to 460 million by next autumn, the World Health Organization estimates that 5 million more people may die from the disease in the coming months.
So, when the World Health Assembly (WHA) gathers for a special session starting Monday, its task is nothing less than preventing the recurrence of such a tragedy. Specifically, the world now needs an internationally binding agreement to prevent future infectious-disease outbreaks from becoming pandemics.
As Tedros Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, has argued , a new agreement should be underpinned by a high-level commitment to health for all, grounded in equity and solidarity between countries. Everyone, regardless of their wealth or income, should have fair access to what they need to maintain their health, and the international community should ensure the equitable use and distribution of available medical resources.
That will require a fully functioning global surveillance system, fast-tracking and sharing support in emergencies, and predictable finance.
Vaccine successes and failures
Nothing illustrates more clearly the need for such an arrangement than the world’s collective failure to ensure the promised equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Although brilliant science and a strong manufacturing effort mean that we will have produced 12 billion doses by the end of 2021—enough to vaccinate every adult in the world— 95% of adults in low-income countries remain unprotected.
This is perhaps the greatest public policy failure of our times.
The WHO’s internationally agreed target of vaccinating 40% of the adult population of every country by December 2021 looks set to be missed by 82 countries . On current trends, it will take until next Easter to get close to 40%, and even then, dozens of countries may fall short. In fact, since the G-7 summit in June, when leaders pledged that the whole world would be vaccinated against COVID-19 by 2022, the gap between the vaccine haves and have-nots has widened rather than diminished.
In high-income countries, vaccination rates have risen from 40% in June to roughly 74% now, but they have increased at a glacial pace in low-income countries—from 1% to less than 5%. For every adult now being inoculated in a low-income country, six adults in middle- and high-income countries are receiving their booster shots . And 73% of African health workers remain unprotected.
True, important regional initiatives have taken steps to address the inequity gap. The African Union’s vaccine-purchasing facility, the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust, has bought 400 million single-shot vaccine doses from Johnson & Johnson /zigman2/quotes/201724570/composite JNJ +1.28% and, thanks to the trust’s chair, Strive Masiyiwa, and the U.S. government, a further 110 million doses from Moderna /zigman2/quotes/205619834/composite MRNA -4.33% , with 50 million to be delivered by March.
But this is still not enough to meet the needs of Africa’s 1.3 billion people.