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Vaccine Nationalism is Imperiling Africa

Never have the individual and the collective been so closely correlated than on the issue of vaccinations. When you vaccinate yourself, you protect the collective. And when you leave the collective vulnerable, you endanger yourself. Yet, despite this apparently obvious statement, “vaccine nationalism” has left an entire continent, the second-largest in the world, vulnerable, a fact that is endangering the entire world’s population. Today, more than ever, we have a moral duty and basic responsibility to look beyond ourselves, do the right thing, and protect our fellow human beings.

The discovery of the Omicron variant in South Africa revealed the failure of developed countries to stop the spread of COVID in the developing world. South Africa bravely and responsibly immediately shared information about the variant’s spread, and was ‘rewarded’ by being cut off from the world; along with 46 other sub-Saharan states.

These actions, unsurprisingly, did nothing to prevent the rapid spread of Omicron around the world. The only policy that might have prevented the emergence of new variants would have been to ensure that as much of the world’s population is vaccinated as possible. Without a body, the viruses lack fertile homes in which they can mutate. But thus far the West has done precious little on this score, preferring to horde vaccines for numerous – and possibly unnecessary – boosters for the benefit of its own people.

They did this by rushing to buy up nearly all the vaccine supply from manufacturers through pre-purchase agreements, meaning these countries have access to many more doses than they are actually using. Krishna Udayakumar, director of Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Center, said: “The real challenge comes back to decision-making by high-income countries, as well as the manufacturers themselves, when they have sold three, four or five times what they can produce at any point in time, they’re having to make decisions about who is getting doses first. And almost across the board, those doses have gone to high-income countries first.”

Medicine should be about saving lives and protecting the vulnerable; not serving the highest bidder.

Until now, and mostly with the help of international organizations, hundreds of millions of Africans have been vaccinated. But this figure is far too low to either protect the population or prevent the emergence of new variants. As of this month, more than 9 billion vaccine doses have been produced, of which, Africa has received approximately 540 million; six percent of all COVID vaccines, despite making up 17 percent of the world’s population.

At the time of writing, only 11 percent of Africans are fully vaccinated. Furthermore, only six African countries reached the WHO global target of fully vaccinating 40 percent of their population by the end of 2021. According to current estimates, most of Africa will not be vaccinated until 2023. This also has an economic cost. A recent study in The Economist found that sub-Saharan Africa will lose three percent of GDP from 2022 to 2025 due to slow vaccination rates.

The solution to this problem is surprisingly simple. The global vaccine production rate currently stands at around 1.5 billion doses a month. Western countries should transfer their large stockpiles of unused vaccines to COVAX, which ensures equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, to ensure that shots reach the arms of people throughout Africa and the rest of the developing world as soon as possible. In Africa, this work can be done with the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), which has pooled resources to procure vaccines for its member states.

Western support could help address Africa’s $1.3 billion shortfall for operational costs, including cold-chain logistics, travel costs, payment for vaccinators and supervisors, and a shortage of syringes and other important commodities. More funds could also be directed towards training the vaccinators and hiring support staff, improving software for data capture, and ensuring that every country has sufficient freezers and logistics elements.

The Multilateral Leaders Task Force (made up of the World Bank, WHO, WTO, and the IMF) has already called on countries with excess doses to swap their near-term delivery schedules, release vaccine companies from contracts and options, and fulfill their donation pledges. It has also called on vaccine companies to prioritize and fulfill their contracts with COVAX and AVAT. I am proud of my country, Israel, for recently donating 1 million vaccinations to COVAX, however, this too is a drop in the ocean, and much more is required from all countries.

When it comes to COVID-19, no one is safe anywhere until everyone is safe everywhere. The sooner the world’s richest countries understand this, the better.