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Comment: Action needed to end global vaccine apartheid

Comment: Action needed to end global vaccine apartheid

Writing exclusively for Holyrood, Labour MSP Sarah Boyack calls for more to be done on vaccine inequality

Like thousands of people across Scotland, I’m currently awaiting my appointment letter for my Covid vaccine booster to help protect me and those around me from the worst effects of the virus this winter.

While I wait patiently for that third blue envelope to come through my door, shamefully, hundreds of millions of people around the world haven’t even had their first dose. And they still face a very, very long wait.

In fact, although vaccines have been offering protection and hope for the future in rich countries like Scotland, nine out of 10 people in developing countries are unlikely to get a dose this year. 

In contrast to Scotland, where 85% of over 16s are now fully vaccinated, less than two percent of people are fully vaccinated in low-income countries. If nothing changes, it could take poorer countries decades to make sure their citizens are fully protected.

The problem is one of corporate greed and vaccine nationalism. The fact that a few big pharmaceutical companies hold monopoly control over how many vaccine doses are made, combined with hoarding of doses by rich countries, has resulted in a serious shortage for many countries. 

Of course, the UK and other rich governments point to the vaccine doses they’re donating to other countries as an example of their altruism: but these acts of charity fall far short of what’s needed and the promised doses simply aren’t being delivered.

New analysis for the People’s Vaccine Alliance, published today, revealed that of the 1.8 billion doses promised by rich countries only 261 million doses –14 per cent – have been delivered. The UK has delivered less than 10 per cent of what it promised to poorer nations.

Meanwhile, millions of lives have been and continue to be devastated. From the doctors and nurses in Uganda – who remain unvaccinated but continue to work despite having watched their colleagues die - – to the tens of thousands of children who have been orphaned in South Africa and India because they have lost their parents to Covid.

It’s clear that charity alone won’t overcome coronavirus. 

Instead, world leaders must deliver bold action to increase manufacturing and access to Covid vaccines around the world. With up to 10,000 people dying every day, nothing short of breaking Big Pharma’s monopoly control and redistributing the rights to produce the vaccines will be enough.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to that happening is the UK government’s continued opposition to a temporary waiver of the intellectual property rules which thwart more rapid production of Covid-19 vaccines and access to technologies.

There are qualified manufacturers around the world who, with a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights and the necessary knowledge and technology transfer, could produce the billions of additional doses of safe and effective vaccines needed to fight the pandemic.

The UK government has the power to help change things and save countless lives by supporting the plan – already backed by over 100 countries including the US and France - to waive the rules that protect pharmaceutical monopolies and prevent manufactures around the world from producing the extra vaccines that are so desperately needed to save lives. Instead it is protecting the status quo.

And the ripple effect of the UK government opting to side with Big Pharma could prove deadly here in Scotland. Epidemiologists have warned of a ticking time bomb of mutations that could render our current vaccines ineffective unless the whole world is vaccinated. 

It’s a threat the Scottish Parliament is alive to, with a majority of MSPs now supporting my motion calling on the Prime Minister to back plans to share life saving vaccine recipes and know how with the rest of the world.

Yet the First Minister has, so far, failed to explicitly back this call, despite the clear risks that vaccine inequality creates to Scottish lives and our country’s fragile recovery from the pandemic.  

Today I, alongside Oxfam Scotland, Global Justice Now Scotland and Christian Aid Scotland, am urging the First Minister to step off the side lines and demand that the Prime Minister does the right thing. Now is the time for the First Minister to back the action needed to end global vaccine apartheid, for all of our sakes, before it’s too late.  

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