The global death toll from Covid-19 surpassed three million on Saturday, a milestone that spotlighted issues of unequal access to inoculation amid calls for waiving patents on vaccines to urgently boost production and distribution worldwide.
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“The need for a rapid, global vaccination rollout is clear and urgent.”
—Gabriel Scally, University of Bristol
“The relentless pace of death” from the coronavirus pandemic “is now being increasingly borne by the poorest places in the world,” Bloomberg reported Saturday, noting that the latest one million deaths documented by Johns Hopkins University came even faster than the first two.
“The grim milestone underscores a widening disparity in combating the pandemic, which parallels the gap in vaccine access,” Bloomberg added. “While mortality rates have largely slowed in the U.S. and parts of Europe thanks to vaccine rollouts that promise a return to some semblance of a normal life, the developing world—Brazil in particular—is shouldering a rising death toll.”
While the United States still led the world in recorded deaths as of Sunday, the pandemic had killed more than 371,600 people in Brazil, 212,200 in Mexico, and 177,100 people in India. Meanwhile, more than 884 million vaccine doses have been administered across 155 countries.
So far, the vast majority of vaccine doses have been hoarded by rich countries, provoking charges of “vaccine apartheid.” Over 100 World Trade Organization (WTO) member nations, led by South Africa and India, have proposed temporarily waiving coronavirus-related patent protections to increase the global supply of doses—but powerful governments including the U.S. and the U.K. have blocked that effort.
Leaders of the countries standing in the way of the waiver face rising pressure to change course. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and a group of Democrats sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Friday, writing that “allowing countries to manufacture locally will expedite access to vaccines and treatment, prevent unnecessary deaths, expedite global vaccination efforts, and facilitate a stronger, faster economic recovery.”
That came after more than 170 Nobel laureates and former heads of state and government sent a similar letter to the White House on Wednesday. Recent polling from Data for Progress shows that 60% of U.S. voters—including 72% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans—also want Biden to support the effort by the majority of WTO member nations pushing to waive patents during the pandemic.
Biden isn’t the only world leader facing such pressure. In an opinion piece for The Guardian on Sunday, Gabriel Scally, a visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol and a member of Independent SAGE, argued that “by helping block a patent waiver, the U.K. government is stifling vaccine production, which means many countries will wait years for sufficient doses.” As Scally wrote:
“The British government should urgently review its opposition” he said of the WTO effort. “We, across the U.K., are cautiously moving towards reducing coronavirus restrictions and assisting the economy to recover. All of that could be lost if highly infectious, vaccine-resistant variants emerge—a ‘people’s vaccine’ is the surest, fastest way to avoid the risk of what might be a devastating development.”
Campaigners are also targeting Big Pharma directly. With pharmaceutical firms set to hold their annual general meetings in the coming weeks, the People’s Vaccine Alliance has invited CEOs to attend a public event on Wednesday with healthcare workers, vaccine volunteers, and patients from across the globe.
The alliance says that “we want the pharmaceutical companies to hear the testimonies of those who are directly affected by lack of access to the vaccines—and answer our questions on how they intend to improve global access.”