In another New Year, the world is faced with an array of challenges – the climate emergency, the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, humanitarian crises, mass migration, the risk of inter-state conflict, and transnational terrorism. Nothing, however, poses itself with the immediacy and universal threat of a resurgent pandemic.
By now, the entire world population is understandably overcome with what has been described as pandemic fatigue.
When we all started down the road of masking, sanitisation and social distancing in early 2020, few would have guessed such measures would still be very much de rigueur as we enter 2022. Yet the rapid emergence of the Omicron variant is a stark reminder of the ongoing threat posed by the evolution of the Covid-19 pandemic, and reinforces the critical need to achieve high levels of immunisation coverage in all countries, including those with highly vulnerable populations.
That makes achieving 70 per cent coverage with Covid-19 vaccines in all countries our biggest global imperative in 2022. Greater attention must be paid to who is being immunised, equity must remain the overarching principle, and priority must be given in all countries to ensuring that the primary doses are offered first and foremost to all adults and adolescents, in the step-wise manner recommended by World Health Organization (WHO). The COVAX facility administered by the WHO was envisioned to be the world’s primary distributor of Covid-19 vaccines. But instead, we have witnessed rich nations largely sidestepping COVAX, hoarding doses for their own populations and cutting deals directly with low- and middle-income countries. This has made subsequent allocation decisions even more challenging.
One good thing is that the overall vaccine supply to COVAX is anticipated to grow substantially in 2022. This means, COVAX will have a greater opportunity to contribute to achieving the goal of 70 per cent immunisation in all countries by the middle of 2022. If that can be achieved, we will have come a long way from the ‘vaccine nationalism’ and inequity that came to define the global response to the pandemic in its first two years.
But for this to happen, manufacturers, vaccine-producing countries and countries that have managed to achieve high levels of coverage (70 per cent and above) must prioritise the principles of vaccine equity and transparency, including sharing of information about manufacturing capacity and supply schedules with COVAX, as part of devising effective vaccine access plans.
At the Biden administration’s first Covid-19 summit with foreign representatives in September, US officials noted it would take at least $7 billion in 2022 to ensure shots are administered across the globe. We must not let anyone contend that the price tag is too high, for an effort that seeks to put behind us the most disruptive force we have witnessed to humanity’s progress in a century.
Yet in a series of internal meetings in recent weeks, USAID officials working on the global vaccination effort have reportedly raised concerns about the global vaccination campaign stalling in the spring if additional sources of funding are not found. Such a pause could allow new, more-transmissible Covid-19 variants to emerge.
Washington has been a leader in the global vaccination campaign – one effort in which it enjoys a clear advantage over its emergent rival on the international stage. We must hope that it will recognise this opportunity to stand beside the world, and pull out all the stops to obtain the additional funding necessary to maintain its position as a leader in the global campaign to vaccinate 70 per cent of the world’s population by the middle of 2022.
Bangladesh has been one of the beneficiaries of that campaign, with close to 20 million jabs, of the nearly 310 million that it has so far secured, coming by way of donations from Washington. But a vaccination campaign is about more than just allocating the number of jabs needed (roughly twice the population of a country, supposing everyone gets two doses). It is also about training healthcare professionals to safely administer vaccines, maintaining cold-chains through the use of freezer trucks, and providing freezers and other equipment for health facilities to properly store and transport vaccine doses across the country.
Our history of fighting disease has meant that some low-income countries have been revealed to possess surprisingly robust infrastructures for carrying out effective immunisation drives. Where the inequity has really affected us is in the manufacturing of vaccines. To that end, countries must actively endeavour to preserve the strengths and address the weaknesses that have been shown up by the pandemic, in order to avoid such rude shocks in the future. We cannot afford to rest on our laurels once the present pandemic is tackled satisfactorily. The work to be prepared to fight the next one – and there will be one, rest assured – must start immediately on the back of it.
Bangladesh already makes vaccines against hepatitis, flu, meningitis, rabies, tetanus and measles. Pharmaceutical companies that took taxpayer money from the US or Europe to develop Covid-19 inoculations at unprecedented speed have continually said they are negotiating contracts and exclusive licencing deals with producers in low-income countries on a case-by-case basis because they need to protect their intellectual property and ensure safety.
However, this piecemeal approach has been demonstrated to be too slow at a time of urgent need. In order to prepare for the future, we must increase our investments in the health sector, and in fact most importantly out of government coffers. This must include investing in high-quality medical education that allows our scientists to come up with the all-important formulae that form the cornerstone of intellectual property.
If we are able to proceed down that path, we may hope to see the admirable vision stated by the Prime Minister of turning Bangladesh into a vaccine hub for the world come to fruition. But it all starts with ending the pandemic in 2022. Short of that, everything remains a pipe dream.
Enayetullah Khan is Editor-in-Chief at United News of Bangladesh (UNB) and Dhaka Courier.