Editorial: A paradigm shift | Sunday Observer

Editorial: A paradigm shift

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa hit the right note recently when he said that vaccines are the only way out of the current Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, it is the only way to achieve “herd immunity” – the stage where much of the population has been vaccinated and is resistant to the virus. Having no host to cling on to, the virus fades away. This is indeed how vaccines have almost eradicated certain viral diseases from the face of the earth.

Sri Lanka’s vaccination efforts suffered a temporary setback as India, currently experiencing an unprecedented virus surge, has stopped exports of the locally manufactured AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine on which we pinned our hopes.

Fortunately, our health planners had the foresight not to put all eggs into one basket.

Thus we will soon have access to a range of vaccines including Russia’s Sputnik V (vaccination with which is already underway in some suburbs of Colombo for those aged 30-60), Pfizer, China’s Sinopharm (pending the approval of the World Health Organization) and of course, AstraZeneca itself, either from India or another manufacturing country such as the UK.

We should also get more vaccines from the global Covax facility. Other vaccines may be purchased should the need arise. If all goes well, health authorities expect to vaccinate at least 65 percent of the population by year end.

This may not be the ideal threshold for herd immunity, but it will take us to safer territory. Once approval is given by WHO and other agencies, the inoculations can also be given to schoolchildren and pregnant women, the two categories that are currently excluded.

There is hope in this regard on the horizon, as vaccine companies have completed trials for teenage children. It has also been proved conclusively through ongoing trials that vaccines are not harmful to pregnant women.

But Sri Lanka is not the only developing country facing a vaccine crunch. Ours is an unequal world and rich countries have been hoarding vaccines for their own use.

Some rich countries have ordered vaccines that can inoculate their populations nine times over. More than one billion Covid vaccine doses have been administered around the world, but the vast majority had gone into the arms of residents of developed countries.

In other words, just 16 percent of the world’s population has received nearly 50 percent of the vaccine doses so far produced.

Some countries such as Israel have vaccinated close to 60 percent of their populations while many countries in Africa are yet to administer a single shot.

But one has to admit that vaccine production is no easy task. Even the biggest vaccine producers may not be able to produce more than 500 million doses per year, as the supply chains are enormous and complex.

Yes, more vaccines are being approved (Curevac, J&J, Novavax etc), but even with the new vaccines in play it will be a long time before 16 billion doses can be produced (at the rate of two doses each for eight billion people).

Some experts say that global vaccination will end only in 2025 at current rates of production and vaccination.

Yet, there is a solution. There are many pharmaceutical factories throughout the developing world, including in Sri Lanka, which can manufacture vaccines.But the mainly Western vaccine manufacturers are zealously guarding their patents and formulas and will not transfer their technology to the Third World. Until now, the Western world collectively said ‘no’ to pleas by developing nations to open up their patents.

However, the world witnessed a seismic shift in this attitude last week, as US President Joe Biden backed the vaccine patent and intellectual property waiver proposed among others, by India and South Africa. This is a move that has far-reaching repercussions in terms of vaccine production.

Katherine Tai, the United States trade representative, announced the administration’s position on Wednesday afternoon. “This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” she said in a statement.

While the European Union itself has expressed its openness to the idea, individual countries such as Germany have opposed the US move.

Incidentally, Pfizer’s vaccine partner BioNTech is based in Germany. As expected, the pharmaceutical industry responded angrily to the extraordinary decision. The industry has argued that a suspension of patent protections would undermine risk-taking and innovation.

But from the point of view of the developing world, there is hardly any doubt that President Biden made the right call.

As the WHO has stressed time and again, “no one is safe until everyone is safe”. It does not matter if the developed world has vaccinated every eligible citizen, if the developing world is unable even to vaccinate 25 percent of their collective population.

Besides, the virus gets more chances to mutate (as seen in India and Brazil) as long as vulnerable populations are not vaccinated.

One other factor that should motivate rich countries to share their technology is that they stand to lose as much as US$ 5 trillion over the next few years if the disease persists elsewhere in the world. Humanity will be able to defeat the virus only if the entire world is vaccinated more or less simultaneously.

Now is the time for the world to come together. If the developed world does not reach out to their less developed counterparts in the South at this crucial moment, it will forever be a blot on their histories.

There is no time to waste – the time has come to pool the world’s resources and defeat this contagion once and for all.