Covid vaccine nationalism: Boris Johnson must end his short-sighted opposition to sharing life-saving science with the world – Lois Chingandu

First it was my mum who got infected. But while I was by her side, nursing her, I got a phone call to say that my daughter Valerie was also sick. My husband was too. They were both just saying: “We can’t breathe, we can’t breathe.”

They needed a bed in the intensive care unit. They needed oxygen. But living in Zimbabwe with an already severely compromised health care system, hospital beds were overwhelmed with sick people coming from everywhere in Zimbabwe.

After a few days nursing everyone, I too was infected. I remember the palpable fear, helplessness and anxiety that I felt.

Meanwhile, the eyes of the world were fixed thousands of miles away on the UK as a 90-year-old grandma, Margaret Keenan, became the first person in the world to receive a Covid-19 vaccine outside of clinical trials. It was a moment of hope for so many. Even I believed that hope for Africa had arrived before I knew that all the vaccines had already been bought by rich countries, leaving almost nothing for us.

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One year on from Margaret receiving her first jab, less than three per cent of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated. New analysis published this week by the People’s Vaccine Alliance estimates that the same number of people in UK have had boosters as have been fully vaccinated in all of world’s poorest countries put together.

The problem is one of corporate greed and vaccine nationalism. In the beginning, rich countries pounced to hoover up vaccine supply with such gluttonous gusto some governments ended up with enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations three times over or more. 

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Covid vaccine nationalism must not deny treatment to people in poorest countries...

Developing countries were left to rely on Covax, the scheme set up to supposedly ensure equitable global access to vaccines. But even now, the most optimistic forecasts predict Covax will fail to reach its already inadequate target of protecting 23 per cent of people in developing countries by the end of the year. 

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A woman is vaccinated against Covid in Harare, Zimbabwe, but many in the world's poorest countries are not so fortunate (Picture: Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty Images)

And so, it got worse. Covid’s stranglehold grip increased on the world, with low-income countries’ already fragile and limited public health systems completely overwhelmed.

While this was unfolding, the bosses of the big pharmaceutical companies behind the vaccines sat back, watched and counted their profits. They refused to share their life-saving vaccine recipes and know-how with the rest of the world, blocking an urgently needed scale-up in vaccine production, resulting in a deadly global vaccine shortage.  

Meanwhile, the governments of India and South Africa, supported by over 100 developing countries, took their case to the World Trade Organisation, to try and force big pharma to share their vaccine science and tech. Gradually, other governments, including the US, backed them. Others are slowly putting themselves on the right side of history too.

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But, to succeed, the coalition needs the handful of rich countries – including the UK – who are blocking the proposal and protecting the status quo and pharmaceutical monopolies, to change their minds. 

Of course, the British Prime Minister points to the vaccine doses the UK is donating as an example of its altruism: but these acts of charity fall far short of what’s needed and even the promised doses simply aren’t being delivered. Charity alone won’t overcome coronavirus.

There are qualified manufacturers around the world who, with the necessary knowledge and technology transfer, could produce the billions of additional doses of safe and effective vaccines needed to fight the pandemic. 

This corporate secrecy and the ongoing horror of the global pandemic may now all seem very far away from life in Scotland, but our futures are interlinked. The ripple effect of the UK government opting to side with Big Pharma could ultimately prove deadly in Scotland, as it’s already proving in poor countries like mine, despite the travel bans rich countries are currently slapping on us.

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The emergence of the Omicron variant is worrying, but entirely predictable. Epidemiologists have been clear: if Covid is allowed to continue running rampant, we face a ticking time bomb of further potential mutations that could render existing vaccines ineffective.

As long as rich nations continue to refuse to share doses and the recipe that will allow African countries to produce their own vaccines, we are going to continue living through waves of Covid-19. No amount of closing borders is going to keep the virus away.

It’s a threat my friends at Oxfam Scotland tell me the Scottish Parliament is alive to, with 55 MSPs supporting a motion calling on the Prime Minister to back proposals for the intellectual property rules around vaccine science and technology to be temporarily waived. Last weekend, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford, joined the growing chorus, writing to Boris Johnson on the subject and urging him to “do the right thing”.

That’s hugely positive, because while some in Scotland are standing on the right side of history, the UK government is not. We therefore hope that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will also now strongly and consistently champion this issue too, building on the political leadership she showed at the COP26 climate conference, when she made Scotland the first rich country to commit dedicated funds to poor countries facing the irreversible impacts of climate change.

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She must now personally urge Boris Johnson to end his short-sighted opposition and support calls for a ‘People’s Vaccine’ so that the rest of the world can receive the same protection and hope Margaret Keenan did.

Until that happens, nobody will truly be safe. Breathing seems like a basic human right, but it isn’t when you’re poor and you have Covid. My family were fortunate to survive, and I will continue to fight for access to vaccines until my own last breath. For all of our sakes, we all should.

Lois Chingandu is director of external relations at charity Frontline AIDS in Zimbabwe

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