As the peak holiday travel season kicks into full gear this week, we are faced with more bad news about the coronavirus. Nationally, the daily average number of new infections has increased by 20% over the past two weeks with hot spots in the Northeast and Midwest faring even worse. Colleges are moving January classes online. Professional sports leagues are postponing games. Mask mandates are being dusted off in New York and California. This all comes as the official COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. recently surpassed 800,000.
The arrival of the Omicron variant to these shores only weeks after it was first detected in South Africa is the proximate cause of our latest COVID crisis. Initial studies show Omicron is more transmissible than the Delta variant and is better at evading vaccines.
President Biden will give a nationally-addressed speech tonight about the new variant. He is expected to urge his fellow Americans to wear masks when necessary and to get vaccinated and/or boosted. He will also warn of the dangers that lie ahead for those who refuse to “follow the science” and instead choose to put their lives and the lives of those around them in danger by not getting vaccinated.
As a physician retired from working both in public health and community clinics, I continue to be dismayed by the infantile nudniks who refuse to get vaccinated or wear masks in public settings. However, the biggest reason we are back in this difficult position again is because of our lack of care and concern for other countries, especially in the Global South where most of humanity lives.
Since COVID vaccines were rolled out earlier this year, advocates have warned that we must pursue a universal vaccination program. The alternative — a system of global vaccine apartheid that leaves large pockets of people in poor countries unvaccinated — would cause millions of unnecessary deaths while creating a petri dish effect that would allow dangerous new variants to evolve. Once unleashed, these variants would spread across rich and poor nations alike to wreak more chaos and death. And this is exactly what has happened.
The wealthy nations have hoarded the most effective vaccines — the ones produced by Moderna and Pfizer that rely on new mRNA technologies — while the rest of the world has had to make due with vaccines that rely on older, less effective methods of triggering an immune response or go without vaccines at all.
“The disparity in the ability of countries to weather the pandemic will almost certainly deepen,” The Times noted on Monday.
Break The Patents, Empower the Global South
In a report released last week by the AccessIBSA project and Doctors Without Borders, the authors note that 74% of all vaccines dispensed this year have gone to high and upper-middle income countries while less than 1% went to low-income countries. In Portugal, a high-income country, 87% of the population has been fully vaccinated; in Nigeria, the most populous nation on the African continent, the corresponding figure is less than two percent.
In addition to vaccine apartheid, poorer countries are also struggling to carry out vaccination programs because their governments have been forced for decades by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to defund public services as a condition for loan renewals or extensions.
Western governments have made an ostentatious show of donating a relatively small number of vaccine doses to poor countries. But the real solution lies in breaking the hugely profitable patents controlled by Moderna and Pfizer and sharing the formulas for the mRNA vaccines with manufacturers in the Global South.
There are 120 manufacturers in the Global South who could produce the mRNA vaccines if Big Pharma would share the formulas, according to the above-mentioned report.
The Biden administration has stated support for a patent waiver at the World Trade Organization since May but has made little effort to fight for it in the WTO where it faces vocal opposition from several European nations led by Germany. Under U.S. law, the federal government has “march-in” rights to break pharmaceutical patents but the Biden administration, like its Republican and Democrat predecessors, refuses to use this power. A forever pandemic, like the forever wars of the past two decades, is apparently preferable to cutting down the profits of corporations who benefit from the status quo.
The Long Game
Ironically, the greatest danger is long range and it’s political. The world currently is in climate-crisis mode, while the U.S. government’s main preoccupation (despite appearances of concern about COVID-19) is about preparing for military confrontation with god knows how many fake adversaries from Cuba and Venezuela to Iran, China and Russia or — just like the Europeans — the immigrants who are fleeing the worldwide resource drain and conflagrations that the powerful nations have visited upon them. Even the Pentagon and the U.S. security apparatus declared a few years ago that the climate crisis is the greatest threat to national security, but the political economy isn’t listening very well; it has other fish to fry — profits of doom.
We are thus fiddling while the entire world is losing its fresh water supplies, its food sources, its ability to withstand heat, drought, desertification. New infectious-virus pandemics are also inevitable and in each case, solutions require collaboration and sacrifice. We need to force governments of the most powerful countries, the U.S. in particular, to collaborate internationally with the other nearly 200 nations to end and limit some of these threats. It’s no different in the health sphere than in the arena of resources, climate and economic inequality. This is a matter of species survival, community strength.
Let’s make sure all our friends and community get a booster and take the usual precautions indoors. And let’s hold the politicians accountable by making, in the words of John Lewis, a whole lot of “good trouble” for them.
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