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OPINION

The world needs a People’s Vaccine

Make the upcoming COVID-19 vaccines a people’s vaccine: a global public good, fairly available to all, and prioritizing those most in need everywhere around the world.

Margaret Keenan, 90, was the first patient in the United Kingdom to receive the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 9.
Margaret Keenan, 90, was the first patient in the United Kingdom to receive the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 9.JONNY WEEKS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

As we approach the winter holidays, our lives are on hold and, for many, deeply challenged by the coronavirus pandemic. We are living in almost unimaginable times, the scope of which has not been seen in generations. The impacts go well beyond inconvenience; they encompass uncertainty and loss by many measures. In the United States alone, we have soaring numbers of COVID-19 cases and a shocking number of deaths. The pandemic has also stagnated our economy, leading to financial losses, rising unemployment, marked food insecurity, and a rising number of households falling below the poverty line.

Across the world, scientists are racing to deliver a safe and effective vaccine, with more than 50 COVID-19 vaccines currently in trials. Two of the leading candidates, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are each reporting efficacy of more than 90 percent for their respective vaccines. On Thursday, the independent FDA vaccine advisory committee endorsed the safety and efficacy data of the Pfizer candidate, clearing the way for its emergency use authorization.

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Regardless of the quality of the science and data, however, these vaccines will have zero percent effectiveness for those who can’t access or afford them. A scientific breakthrough toward a vaccine is crucial, but its power is muted if not coupled with an equitable access and distribution plan. To achieve this, novel and thoughtful approaches to global vaccine production and distribution are needed.

On their own, no one company — Moderna, Pfizer, nor AstraZeneca — can produce enough vaccine to meet the urgent needs of the global population by the end of 2021. Complicating the math, wealthy countries with buying power, like the United States, have already secured more than half of the potential vaccine doses being initially developed. The United States currently has access to 800 million doses of six potential vaccines, three times its population, while the United Kingdom had preordered more than 340 million doses of different candidates. While vaccination regimens vary, each country has amassed stockpiles more than sufficient to protect their populations, effectively leaving poor nations to scramble for the remainders.

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In a pandemic of this magnitude, we must pursue a new path of prioritizing public health at a global level. That’s why we have joined more than 100 leading public health, economic, business, and racial justice leaders to call on the US government to make the upcoming COVID-19 vaccines a people’s vaccine: a global public good, fairly available to all, and prioritizing those most in need everywhere around the world.

Lifesaving vaccines, tests, and treatments shouldn’t be auctioned off to the highest bidder. We live in a global economy and are connected through our every action and transaction. Partitioning off vaccines or medicines to a select and advantaged few countries will only extenuate preventable human suffering, and ultimately undermine all our health and economic security.

Science, evidence, and public health should drive our decisions, access to medicine and health — and vaccine distribution. In introducing his administration’s new health team, President-elect Joe Biden noted that the pandemic “must be beaten everywhere, or it comes back to haunt us again.” As scientists deliver essential breakthroughs, we must ensure the science of equitable, transparent distribution guides collaboration to make sure that everyone, everywhere can be protected.

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Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris can bring about a People’s Vaccine as the fastest and most effective way to fight this pandemic, reopen our businesses and schools, protect Americans and our interests, and save lives. A People’s Vaccine is our chance to once again lead a changing world with the values and determination that have built this nation. Equitable distribution at a global scale would not only begin to mend the country’s frayed global alliances but also bring an end to the historic crisis in which we are enmeshed.

Our future will be defined in the imminent coming months. Through fair and equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine, families can be reunited, individuals can return to work, children can be educated, and people around the world can seek a life free from want and from fear.

Dr. Vanessa Kerry is a critical-care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and founder and chief executive officer of Seed Global Health. Abby Maxman is the president and CEO of Oxfam America.