Ensuring that COVID-19 vaccines are fairly distributed across the world is the key to ending the public health emergency caused by the pandemic, a top World Health Organization official said Tuesday.
“There is no way out of this pandemic right now without vaccines as the central strategic pillar. Being able to use those vaccines equitably is not only a fair and important humanitarian objective, it is the best way for us all to get out of the pandemic phase that we’re currently in right now,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program.
The WHO has called previously for all countries to achieve at least a 70 percent vaccination rate.
Ryan, speaking at a World Economic Forum virtual event, said over half the world’s population has received two shots of vaccine, but in the countries included in WHO’s African regional office, which covers most of the continent, only 5 percent of people are vaccinated.
“The reality is that the world is moving towards the 70 percent goal. The problem is we are leaving huge swathes of the world behind,” he said.
Experts say it’s important to get the world vaccinated not only because it’s fair, but because if the virus is allowed to continue to circulate freely it could mutate into more troublesome variants.
“What we have seen over the last two years is really total collapse of global cooperation and solidarity. Period, " John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said in the same event.
“I think there’s absolutely no reason why a continent of Africa should be lagging behind,” he said. “It’s totally unacceptable.”
“We truly don’t know what the next variant will look like, and the only way to prevent other variants challenging the global efforts and advances that we have seen is to vaccinate at scale and at speed, including Africa,” he said.
Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of Boston College’s Global Public Health and the Common Good program, said in a telephone interview, “It’s the right thing to do.”
“You have to share the wealth,” he said. “Rich countries have a responsibility to help out the countries that don’t have the kind of resources that we do.”
It’s also the pragmatic thing to do, he said. “So long as there are major parts of the world unvaccinated, this virus is going to continue to spread. And when it spreads like wildfire, the risks of mutation go up.”
Global distribution of vaccines will also “stabilize economies and reduce risk of social upheaval especially in poorer countries,” he said in an e-mail.
Dr. Andrew Freedman, an academic in infectious diseases at Cardiff University Medical School, told CNBC earlier this month, “Until the whole world is vaccinated, not just rich Western countries, I think we are going to remain in danger of new variants coming along and some of those could be more virulent” than the Omicron variant.
Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, warned Tuesday in a tweet that “there’s no consensus, but I feel that omicron will not produce long lasting or durable protection and we’ll be vulnerable to a new variant this spring/summer.”
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.