The world’s richest countries will be guilty of serious wrongdoing if they do not stop “hoarding” COVID-19 vaccines, one of Asia’s top epidemiologists says, warning that the pandemic is worsening dangerous global inequalities.
The Canadian government and others should act “as quickly and as swiftly as possible to release excess procurement volumes,” Gabriel Leung, dean of medicine at The University of Hong Kong, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
Prof. Leung, who studied at the University of Western Ontario and completed his medical residency in Toronto, is a veteran of the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong who was among the first to identify the immensity of the COVID-19 risk. Beginning last January, he published estimates that suggested the new coronavirus was spreading in Wuhan far more widely than the Chinese government had then acknowledged. He was then quick to identify the global consequences of the fast-moving disease.
Now, he is warning that the response to COVID-19, particularly among wealthy nations, stands to inflict a global pain that goes beyond the virus symptoms.
Prof. Leung said not enough was done last year to block the spread of disease or assist countries struggling to cope with its effects. This year, “we are likely to commit this grave and deep inequity a second time – but this time, by commission,” he said. “That is: hoarding an inequitable allocation. We mustn’t do that.”
It is a message with particular relevance for Canada, where Justin Trudeau’s government has already drawn criticism for securing five times more vaccine supplies than needed for the Canadian population. At the same time, research by the People’s Vaccine Alliance shows that 67 poorer countries have secured sufficient supplies for just one in 10 of their people.
“Realpolitik” dictates that Ottawa move quickly to inoculate Canadians, Prof. Leung said.
But “as you get more and more confident of supply – that it’s steady and that it can keep pace with your logistics of actually administering the vaccines – then you would start to release” doses in excess of that needed for the Canadian population, Prof. Leung said.
The federal government has pledged to vaccinate anyone willing by September.
But failing to share the vaccine wealth only stands to accelerate the growth in populism and tribalism that had already, before the pandemic, given expression to rising global resentments. “COVID has brought out very acutely some of these long-unresolved issues,” Prof. Leung said. Indeed, the virus “has just made it worse.”
Vaccine disparities have geopolitical importance as well.
China has employed its domestically developed jabs for political gain. Beijing has kept a tally of state leaders who have “set an example for their people by receiving Chinese vaccines,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said this week.
Those include Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, Jordan’s Bisher al Khasawneh and Bahrain’s Salman bin Hamad. Others have made public their desire for the Chinese jab, including Cambodia’s Hun Sen, Peru’s Francisco Sagasti and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.
China has not disclosed whether its own top leaders have been vaccinated. And it’s not clear how many doses of Chinese vaccines have actually been sent overseas, as Beijing races to protect its own 1.4 billion people. The value of the Chinese vaccines has also been placed into doubt by a considerable disparity in test results, including a Brazilian clinical trial that found the Sinovac-developed vaccine to be 50.38 per cent effective.
Still, Beijing has used images of foreign leaders taking Chinese medicine as proof of its helpful intentions. “Many countries believe that China is acting on its pledge of making vaccines a public good,” Ms. Hua said.
Even in countries where vaccination is moving quickly, however, Prof. Leung warned against expecting rapid relief from lockdown restraints. It’s not clear whether those who are vaccinated can continue to be viral carriers, infecting others. The emergence of new strains also creates worries, given the uncertainty over how much protection existing vaccines will provide as the virus continues to mutate.
The inoculation process is also likely to take years, presaging a lengthy period of social dislocations still to come.
“It would probably take the world a good two, maybe even three years to vaccinate everybody. So we’re not talking about something that’s going to happen within 2021,” Prof. Leung said.
And achieving global vaccination is unlikely to vanquish the virus entirely. Instead, Prof. Leung said, the best hope is for vaccines to attenuate its severity such that it resembles the seasonal flu.
That won’t eliminate COVID-19. But it should remove the reason for the lockdowns and movement restrictions that have plagued life for much of the last year.
With the seasonal flu, “we don’t lock down the entire world. We don’t have these rolling shut downs every season,” he said. But “if we are thinking that the vaccine is going to eliminate COVID-19, that is probably too much to ask.”
In the meantime, he urged health authorities to avoid virus tunnel vision.
“Looking after people’s emotional and mental well-being is no less significant than the infectious pathogen itself,” he said.
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