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End Vaccine Apartheid: Summit on Vaccine Internationalism Demands Urgent Action to Help Global South

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We look at the push to end what the World Health Organization is calling “vaccine apartheid,” as many countries have yet to see a single COVID-19 vaccine shot amid mounting infections. “What we’re looking for is an alternative to a system that has basically allowed for COVID-19 vaccines to be absolutely concentrated in the higher-income countries,” says Carina Vance Mafla, former health minister of Ecuador, who co-chaired this weekend’s emergency Summit on Vaccine Internationalism. She argues vaccine access can be improved by expanding vaccine “production in other countries … that have developed vaccine candidates, but also having pricing that is based on solidarity.” We also speak with Achal Prabhala, coordinator of the AccessIBSA project, which campaigns for access to medicines in India, Brazil and South Africa. Prabhala says the pandemic is now “largely a developing country problem.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The emergency Summit for Vaccine Internationalism was held virtually around the world this weekend. We’re joined by the summit’s co-chair, Carina Vance Mafla. She is the former health minister of Ecuador, joining us from New Orleans.

Also with us, from Bangalore, India, is Achal Prabhala, coordinator of the AccessIBSA project, which campaigns for access to medicines in India, Brazil and South Africa. He took part in the summit and has a new article in The Atlantic, co-authored with Chelsea Clinton, headlined “The Vaccine Donations Aren’t Enough.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Carina Vance, let’s start with you. Talk about the significance of this meeting, globally, virtually, and what you’re demanding. Your first speaker in one of the promos for this started by saying, “Gasping for air.”

CARINA VANCE MAFLA: Well, thank you very much for having me.

It’s been a really amazing opportunity to hold this summit with the organization of Progressive International and have countries, like Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, having their — Venezuela — having their government, their national government, representative at the summit. And what we’re looking for is an alternative to a system that has basically allowed for COVID-19 vaccines to be absolutely concentrated in the higher-income countries. You mentioned, for instance, the G7 commitment to donating 600 million vaccines. Well, let’s just think about the population in lower-income and lower-middle-income countries. That’s at roughly 3.5 billion people. So, if we’re talking about a vaccine that requires two doses, we’re talking about 7 billion doses. We are far — obviously, the commitment by the G7 is far from what we need in lower-income and lower-middle-income countries.

So, what the summit was proposing, and is proposing, is the creation of this platform, where we have the potential, great potential already, in Global South countries, like Cuba, Argentina, Mexico, that are producing or are developing vaccine candidates that are close to the possibility of having a mass manufacturer. So, we saw yesterday Cuba shared to the world data in terms of the efficacy of their vaccine, Soberana 02, which is 62%. This is above WHO standards, so this is really positive, good news, because what the commitments were that occurred in this summit included having — being open to mass production in other countries, from countries that have developed vaccine candidates, but also having pricing that is based on solidarity.

We have seen not only the concentration, the hoarding of vaccines in the Global North, many times against WTO rules — we saw it at the beginning of the pandemic, as well, with other types of equipment, like masks — but we have seen, you know, in this example, in other examples in the region and in the world, that the profit margin that is being seeked by Big Pharma is huge. So, this commitment to have pricing that is based on solidarity, pricing that is based on the possibility of expanding access to the vaccine in the Global South, is a very positive thing, as well as supporting initiatives that are historically important, as well as the TRIPS waiver that is being considered in the WTO, although we all know there are countries that are dragging their feet. We have the example, for instance, of Canada, where Bolivia has an agreement with a Canadian-based pharmaceutical company to produce vaccines, and Canada has not given the compulsory licensing required to be able to do this. So we see countries that are dragging their feet, when we have in front of us practical solutions that could resolve this horrible inequity that we’re seeing globally.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to also go to Achal Prabhala, speaking to us from India, also so tragically hard hit during this pandemic, some might say criminally hard hit. You begin your piece in The Atlantic, that you co-authored with Chelsea Clinton, by pointing out developing countries now account for the vast majority of daily global COVID deaths. Eighty-five percent of the vaccines are going to the richest countries, 0.3% to the poor countries. Scores of countries, almost a hundred, have not seen a vaccine. That death toll, do you attribute it entirely to vaccinations and the lack of them?

ACHAL PRABHALA: What’s happening right now, what’s been happening since May, is that the pandemic has mutated. What was once a global calamity is now largely a developing country problem.

So, there are many ways of measuring the effect of the pandemic. And the starkest way to measure it is through mortality, the number of people who die. And since last month, the number of people who die on a daily basis from COVID, from the pandemic, are in developing countries. They’re in low- and middle-income countries. In the poorest countries in the world, they now form a share of 43% of all deaths worldwide. In middle-income countries, it’s 42%. In the richest countries, it’s only 15%.

The reason that the richest countries in the world can open their economies, can think of things like making holiday plans across each other, as long as people are vaccinated, is because they’re vaccinated. Vaccinations are a protection against things that we saw occur in India over the last two months, which is deaths that were caused as a result of a failing public health system. Our public health system simply isn’t capable of treating people in this country. It’s never been. And vaccinations prevent people from dying, you could say, unnecessarily, but through the symptoms of COVID that could be treated but are not, things like access to oxygen, a basic course of steroids or basic hospital care, which is what the majority of the deaths in India occurred as a result of.

Now, the problem with the rate of deployment of vaccines is now well known. We are in a state of vaccine apartheid. And there couldn’t be a greater contrast between the inaction from the G7 — and let’s be clear: Donations are great. Donations are especially great to organizations like the African Union, which represent among the largest number of poor countries in this world, and especially great if they can be sent right now and deployed immediately, because there is an immediate crisis, and immediate donations respond to that.

The G7 announcement fell short on a couple of counts. One, the number of vaccines was inflated. And, two, many of those vaccines that have been promised by G7 countries will only come to these poor countries at the end of this year or at the beginning of next year. Now, keep in mind that on a daily basis last month, on average, we had over 4,000 deaths in India alone, 15,000 deaths a day globally. When you consider numbers like that, you know, a day’s delay, a week’s delay, a month’s delay, a year’s delay is almost criminal.

And there could not have been a greater contrast between what the G7 displayed last week and what some of the poorest countries in the world, as well as other countries who are by far outside the bloc of the richest countries on Earth, got together to decide. I’m sure Carina feels this way, as well. She and I moderated and chaired a session with a few leaders of states who were all in solidarity. They were in empathy. It was like going out and speaking a language that suddenly everybody understood. They understood that they were going to do everything they could to help crises in their own countries and to help anyone else in any other country that needed their help.

So we had commitments of making vaccines from Cuba available to absolutely anybody who wanted to produce them anywhere in the world, including something called Mambisa, which is a nasal spray vaccine which has great promise. We had commitments from Mexico and Argentina to share the regulatory authority that they have to assess drugs and vaccines. This is something they’ve already been doing in the region, and they extended this service to absolutely any country in the world who wish to take it up. We had countries like Bolivia and Venezuela who are talking about their own acts of civil disobedience that they encouraged others to follow them on to create collective action around this global regime of pharmaceutical monopolies.

There was an almost spiritual spirit at this conference, which, I must say, was a breath of fresh air to have a bunch of countries with power, with real assets to commit in this pandemic, be willing to do that, be willing to do that in a way that we could all share in what each other has to survive this pandemic individually and collectively.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask, Carina Vance, if you could talk about one of the major themes of this emergency international vaccine summit, being health sovereignty in the Global South. What exactly does that look like? And you, really, a person of two countries — you were educated here in the United States. You were the health minister under President Correa in Ecuador and, course, lived there, as well. What you see people in the United States not understanding about this pandemic, when it comes to if one person is sick anywhere in the world, we are all susceptible?

CARINA VANCE MAFLA: Well, it’s exactly that, no? I think that a lot of people in the United States, for instance, consider themselves lucky to have been able to access the vaccine, given what is going on in the Global South. It’s not a matter of luck. And that is — we’re very clear on that. And that’s why it’s so important to strengthen health sovereignty in the region.

What does that mean? That means increasing our capacity to develop vaccine candidates and medications. We have a lot of neglected diseases in the Global South, in the Latin American region, that don’t have the interest of Big Pharma because they don’t represent enough of a profit — margin of profit. So we need to strengthen our own capacity.

And we have such great examples of that — Cuba, with five vaccine candidates, despite the criminal, unilateral sanctions by the United States, so difficulty in terms of accessing, for instance, raw materials, difficulty in terms of establishing commercial contracts with other countries around the world because of these sanctions. Just a few days ago, we learned about the fact that Venezuela had paid the last payment for the COVAX mechanism to access vaccine, and this last payment was frozen, so they are not yet able to access a mechanism that was created supposedly to assist countries in — developing countries to access the vaccine.

So, health sovereignty means strengthening our capacity to develop, to innovate, to investigate, to research and to produce vaccines and the other types of health technologies that we need. And this must be coupled with health system strengthening. We have a great history of this and recent history of strengthening health systems in Latin America and the Global South. Much more needs to happen, because we have a counterpower — you know, for instance, IMF has agreements with the countries, like Ecuador, where I’m from, where it’s imposing neoliberal policies. For instance, in Ecuador in 2020, we saw a 10% budget cut in the health sector. You would think that this is ridiculous in the middle of a pandemic, but that’s the type of policies that we’re seeing in some of the countries.

So, to have progressive governments coupled with progressive leaderships around the world to say, “We are — we can, and we will, strengthen our health sovereignty, our capacity to attend to our own needs, because health, we have seen it being used as a weapon.” This is not only a matter of money. You know, a lot of countries have had contracts signed, payments to pharmaceutical companies, and pharmaceutical companies [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, but I want to thank you so much for being with us, Carina Vance and Achal Prabhala. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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