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World leaders: You have an obligation to act now

September 15, 2021 by Heather Ignatius

If the global pandemic response continues to fall short, the consequences will be dire. Here’s how you can help get the world moving in the right direction.

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Flags outside the United Nations in New York. Photo: Yerpo.

At the time of this article’s posting, just 20 percent of people in low- and lower-middle-income countries had received a dose of COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 80 percent in higher-income countries. Failing to control COVID-19 puts the world at ever-increasing risk for more dangerous variants with the potential to evade both current and future vaccines.

Plus, this coronavirus is not only a direct threat to health, it also indirectly disrupts essential services like routine screenings and childhood immunization. In 2020, an estimated 23 million children missed out on basic vaccines, leaving them at risk for deadly resurgences of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles.

Despite these ongoing injustices, global leaders are behaving as if we’ve reached the end of this pandemic. The painful reality is that at the speed we are responding today, the pandemic could be just beginning.

The United Nations General Assembly convenes for its 76th session this week. It’s time for world leaders to take urgent action to get the world on track.

You must create and enact a unified global action plan.

A year and a half into the pandemic, the world is still suffering from a collective action problem. What initially looked like swift global action in support of all countries has given way to a form of international collaboration whereby world leaders are doing just enough to look responsive. On their own, announcements of vaccine donations, new credit lines, and new partnerships are little more than lip service. Without a global plan to unite and guide these efforts, they will never amount to more than drops in the ocean, and they will never end the acute phase of this pandemic.

What we need is a single global action plan for COVID-19 response—and not just as a publicity stunt. The world needs real commitments from the most powerful entities to act on that plan and prioritize the needs of the people who they have (so far) largely ignored while hoarding resources. Nationalism is not the answer in a pandemic.

As we design the structures needed moving forward, world leaders must own up to what has worked and what hasn’t so far—including who has benefited and who has not. The action plan must be planned, costed, and financed urgently to correct these tremendous inequities and save lives.

To execute such a plan, high-level political leadership is essential. COVID-19 needs a visible global diplomat, unattached to the agendas of countries and institutions, who is willing to make tough decisions that serve the greater good and push world leaders to take the ethical steps necessary to ensure the pandemic ends swiftly and equitably.

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The plan must reflect the needs and priorities of low- and middle-income countries.

The pandemic has proven that a global response in which some countries are entirely reliant on others for access to lifesaving health products doesn’t work. Charity is not the answer.

COVAX, the multilateral initiative charged with supplying 92 low- and middle-income countries with COVID-19 vaccines, will be able to procure 25 percent fewer doses than anticipated in 2021. Late funding and downstream delivery constraints have hindered the ability of the COVAX facility to procure and distribute COVID-19 vaccines. As a result, nations in need of vaccine supply have not been able to count on procurement of doses through COVAX.

Meanwhile, many nations with excess COVID-19 vaccines are waiting to see if additional doses will be needed domestically before donating them to other countries. If this continues through the end of the year, COVAX risks facing a pileup of vaccine that will be hard to distribute before expiration.

Until COVAX has the necessary resources to procure sufficient supplies—and to distribute those supplies to countries in greatest need—inequity will continue to grow.

“The countries that have benefited least from the current global response need to be driving much more of the global agenda.”

COVAX is clear about what needs to change: manufacturers must deliver the doses they have committed transparently; countries that have vaccinated most of their populations should swap their place in line to allow dose deliveries to flow through COVAX; donations need to be larger, more predictable, and with longer expiration dates; and trade restrictions that hinder shipment of raw materials must be dropped.

Beyond vaccines, it’s clear the countries that have benefited least from the current global response need to be driving much more of the global agenda. If and when a global plan is created and set in motion, it must be a plan that works for all countries. This pandemic isn’t over until it’s over for everyone.

The plan needs to fill a few overlooked gaps.

As the world has seen with the Delta variant, this coronavirus will continue to evolve and evade current vaccines. To bolster the world’s response to the current pandemic—and future pandemics—the plan must address critical components overlooked in the early days of COVID-19. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Long-term investments to proactively develop new vaccines—such as through the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations—to get ahead of the virus and prevent future outbreaks.
  • Stronger research capabilities in every region of the world. This means world-class clinical trial sites, manufacturing facilitiescapable of producing high-quality medical products, and a clear pathway to speedy registration and delivery of those products once developed.
  • Oxygen and manufacturing systems built sustainably and resourced to last beyond the pandemic. PATH is already engaged in this work in countries across Africa and Asia, but more must be done.

World leaders have a responsibility to help get the world on track if we want to end the pandemic. It’s now clear that we move forward all together, or not at all.

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