COVID-19 Vaccines Must Be Free, Mass-Produced Globally

PIH urges world leaders to prioritize global vaccine equity

Posted on Nov 23, 2021

A protestor holds a sign that says "Free The Vaccine" in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Supporters of the People's Vaccine participate in a rally for global solidarity against vaccine apartheid in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is home to a heavy concentration of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Photo by Zack DeClerck / PIH.

Months after COVID-19 vaccines were widely administered in wealthy nations, billions of people worldwide still haven’t received a single dose.

In fact, less than 1% of doses have been administered in low-income countries, compared to 75% in high- and upper-middle-income countries.

That leaves 3.6 billion people unvaccinated—and puts countless patients, families, and communities at risk, as the virus continues to claim lives and mutate into new variants that threaten everyone.

With the flick of a pen, President Joseph Biden could invoke the Defense Production Act to compel United States-based drugmakers to share vaccine technology and know-how for the COVID-19 vaccines with capable manufacturers to ramp up production worldwide, according to legal experts at Yale Law School and Public Citizen. But so far, he has refused to take this action.

“For ten months now, the president has chosen to ignore calls from global health experts to dramatically expand vaccine supply,” says Garrett Wilkinson, government relations and policy officer with PIH’s Advocacy team, which has pushed the U.S. Government for over a year to expand COVID vaccine supply.

Biden’s inaction comes in spite of his own advisors, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, supporting calls to share COVID vaccine technology with the world to scale supply, says Wilkinson. It also comes in spite of a $16 billion appropriation from the U.S. Congress in March that could have been used to scale vaccine supply.

According to the activist organization PrEP4All, just $12.5 billion of this appropriation could have funded the drastic scaling of manufacturing capacity and put the U.S. on track to produce 1.3 billion extra doses per month by October and 4 billion extra doses in total by the end of January—enough to fully vaccinate the entire populations of Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

But instead, by September, the Biden administration had spent less than 1% of the $16 billion appropriation on scaling up vaccine manufacturing and has currently pledged to donate just 300 million doses by January 1—hardly enough to meet global need. By contrast, by this date, China had heavily invested in ramping up its vaccine manufacturing capacity and aimed to export 2 billion doses this year.

“PIH is disappointed that most of the U.S.’s global vaccine deliveries will come sometime in 2022 or 2023,” says Wilkinson. “If President Biden had listened to global health experts and scaled vaccine supply, we’d be vaccinating the entire world with our best vaccines by now.”

To work toward that end, in 2020, PIH joined the People’s Vaccine movement, a coalition of global organizations and leaders mobilizing in support of a free, accessible vaccine. Over the past year, PIH’s Advocacy team and PIH Engage—a grassroots network of students and community organizers—have met with policymakers in the U.S. Congress and the Biden administration to call for global vaccine equity.

Those calls have only grown louder in recent months.

For health advocates like Wilkinson, the stakes are crystal clear. As the world waits for Biden and U.S. drugmakers to take the action necessary, people needlessly die.

For much of this year, the world saw 10,000 COVID-19 deaths per day. The vast majority of those deaths were among the unvaccinated.

The president’s inaction comes with other costs, too. The longer vaccines remain out of reach for large swaths of the world’s population, the greater the threat of variants, according to experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci—a threat that could only escalate under the administration’s current willingness to wait until late 2022 or 2023 to vaccinate just 70% of people in impoverished countries.

“Not only is this a racist, inequitable policy,” says Wilkinson, “it’s also terrible epidemic control, if you’re letting a virus circulate for three years before even trying to inoculate everyone.”

Still, he’s hopeful that the president will begin to listen to his advisors, public health and scientific experts, and the public, as momentum behind the People’s Vaccine campaign continues to build and as COVID-19 continues to exact a deadly toll worldwide.

“The pandemic is far from over,” he says. “The administration still can and must act to meet global vaccine needs.”

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