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Istock/Franky De Meyer
Istock/Franky De Meyer

Expanding Vaccines Beyond Our Borders

published 21 December 2021 updated 22 February 2022
written by:

If there is one thing we never see again, let it be a crematorium waiting list. Let temporary morgue tents be just that—temporary. We have the capacity to make that happen—to prepare for the next global public health crisis, so we never see this level of chaos and destruction again, by expanding vaccine access beyond our own borders.

The United States has come out in support of waiving patent and other intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines to help expand production of the life-saving shots worldwide. It’s an important and bold step, and we urge other wealthy nations to follow suit.

As of this writing, very few COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in low-income countries. Compare that with the higher percentage going to high- and upper-middle-income countries.

It’s shameful. It’s also self-defeating. Look at the tsunami of infections that threatened to break India’s healthcare system.

As the leaders of two of the world’s largest education unions, we see first-hand the intellectual and economic impact when certain countries can’t access vaccinations. And we know how to solve it.

“As far as educators are concerned, the lack of urgency to equitably distribute vaccines across the globe will be catastrophic for a generation.”

The problem includes a wonky set of intellectual property rules enshrined in the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). As long as the pharmaceutical industry can profit from the making of vaccines, it has no incentive to expand access and help everyone, regardless of their geography or demography, access lifesaving medical care.

Right now, with the protection of TRIPS, pharmaceutical companies are actively refusing to share their recipes, tools and research that would increase vaccine manufacturing across the globe, all in the name of profit.

We hope the United States’ moral leadership to support the waiver will inspire other nations to support it and constructively engage in text-based negotiations at the WTO on the scope of the waiver. This would be a major step to help global efforts to fight the pandemic.

We are dealing with a virus that is out-innovating us, doesn’t care about intellectual property rights and, at the moment, is moving faster than we are, as demonstrated by the recent emergence of the Omicron variant. While the United States has done a great job on vaccine dissemination, if we don’t ramp up vaccine production and even out distribution between the global north and south, we’re going to lose the race against the variants. We have to reach herd immunity on a global level, and universal vaccination is the only way we will achieve it. We did it with smallpox, and we’re so close to doing it with polio—we can do it with COVID-19.

But so far, wealthy countries, including members of the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland, are blocking the waiver, at the expense of global progress and human life. But no country is an island. If governments want to end the pandemic within their borders, they must eradicate COVID-19 across all borders. Our best recourse is to treat vaccines as a global public good and immunize as many people as possible.

As far as educators are concerned, the lack of urgency to equitably distribute vaccines across the globe will be catastrophic for a generation, potentially denying them the opportunity to return to in-person learning full time, which is what they need to build a strong academic, social and emotional foundation.

This will in turn affect their whole lives, not to mention the global economy. In parts of South Africa, some students attend school only once a week, or four times a month. The poorest schools don’t have the infrastructure to safely space out students. And while few students are in the classroom, the majority of kids typically aren’t learning online from home because many don’t have the capacity to do so.

In the United States (where over 60 percent of the population has been vaccinated), the situation is markedly better. The vast majority of American teachers, school staff and students are back to in-person schooling. America’s educators are grateful to the Biden administration for a robust vaccination rollout at home, and want to see that same access abroad in our global community.

Unfortunately, the consequences of this pandemic don’t seem convincing enough for pharmaceutical companies to freely share their know-how with producers across the globe. That information needs to be shared, and a TRIPS waiver is the way to do it. By supporting the waiver, our countries’ governments and leaders from the world’s wealthy nations can ensure corporate greed does not trump human life.

This is the choice that could define the course of this pandemic, and will speak volumes about our own moral character.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.