Healthcare is a universal human right, as defined by the United Nations. Unfortunately, although much progress has been made in recent years, many people worldwide still lack adequate healthcare. This is due in part to the lack of access to advanced healthcare technologies in developing countries.
The HIV crisis in southern Africa highlighted the need for pharmaceutical companies to make healthcare more accessible to poorer nations. Covid-19 has, however, demonstrated just how far there is still to go. During the pandemic, many developing countries could not develop vaccines of their own and therefore relied on supplies from developed countries. This lack of access was exacerbated by the cost of medicines and the scarcity of supply. Vaccine-producing nations have prioritised their own populations before considering contracts with other nations, and developing nations have historically been last in line.
The distribution of vaccines has revealed the true extent to which developed nations and pharmaceutical giants care about human rights. By now, many developed nations have vaccinated more than 60% of their population, the lower estimate required for herd immunity. At the same time, poorer countries like Pakistan are still struggling to acquire safe and effective vaccination contracts.
The COVAX initiative, a program for global equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines led by the World Health Organisation (WHO), was a step in the right direction, but critics were quick to point out inconsistencies. Some recipient countries received out-of-date vaccines or experienced delays and funding gaps. For instance, Nigeria, which is currently suffering from a second wave of the pandemic, did not receive any Covid-19 vaccines until earlier this year. The country had the opportunity to receive more than 100,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine through the COVAX programme, but their shipment was regularly delayed.
In June, Benin received AstraZeneca vaccinations through the COVAX programme, but was very slow to vaccinate its population. Only 267 shots were given each day and more than 110,000 of the COVAX’s programme AstraZeneca’s doses expired. The COVAX initiative is doomed to failure unless the benefactor also provides the recipient countries with the ability to distribute the vaccines. This includes, but is not limited to, infrastructural, logistical and educational support.
One suggestion has been for pharma companies to release the intellectual property (IP) for their vaccines. This would allow developing nations to manufacture their own vaccines while reducing the strain on the supply chain of developed nations. The European Union has, however, blocked plans to release IP amid concerns that it would minimise the incentives for large pharma companies to develop vaccines in the future.
Now that effective vaccines have been developed, pharma companies, non-governmental organisations and governments must solve the logistical and social problems of vaccinating the world. With new variants appearing across the globe, it has become clear that ending the pandemic will require vaccinating everyone, not just a select few. Providing fair access is the only way to ensure a safe route out of the Covid-19 crisis.