PIH’s Statement on the COVID-19 Omicron Variant

New variant renews calls for global vaccine equity in production, distribution 

Posted on Dec 3, 2021

patient received COVID-19 vaccination in Sierra Leone
Sylvia Y. Kamara, a nurse who works in the female surgical ward at PIH-supported Koidu Government Hospital, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a patient in Kono District, Sierra Leone. Photo by Maya Brownstein / PIH

The recent discovery of the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, demonstrates what we have known all along: the only way to end the global COVID-19 pandemic is by ensuring equitable access to vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics to everyone in every country.  

Health systems around the world also require increased material support to deliver care and epidemic control services. To date, world leaders, including President Joseph Biden and his administration, have failed to do their part in meeting these global needs.  

While the United States government has expressed support for a waiver to intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines since May, the administration has not taken significant steps to advance this policy at the World Trade Organization and fails to advocate for a waiver for COVID diagnostics and treatments. The United States has also not yet exhausted all available tools or authorities granted by law to dramatically scale vaccine supply to meet global need. This includes more than $16 billion appropriated by the U.S. Congress in March to increase vaccine production.  

Despite recent commitments to secure 300 million doses for donation to low-income countries by the end of 2021, and 1.1 billion by September 2022, we are severely disappointed in the Biden administration’s lack of accountability and leadership on vaccine equity worldwide. The emergence of yet another variant proves that these donation efforts are not meeting the scale or speed of the pandemic. In public statements this week, Biden suggested that the Omicron variant in South Africa is the result of weak health systems in poor countries alone, rather than acknowledging global vaccine inequities as a large driver of low global vaccination rates.  

While Partners In Health does know that impoverished nations need increased material health system supports, the health systems are not to blame for global vaccine hoarding nor the lack of action from wealthy nations to put equitable access before the profit margins of vaccine manufacturers. 

The rationale for inaction on the production of vaccines is reminiscent of those made by politicians two decades ago to oppose treating HIV in impoverished nations. In Africa alone, up to 12 million people needlessly died of AIDS in the time it took to make HIV treatment universally available. Sadly, with respect to COVID, world leaders are on track to oversee even more preventable global suffering. 

Partners In Health calls on the Biden administration to raise its aspirations such that the full power of the United States is mobilized to end this pandemic as soon as possible.

It is our position that the United States must immediately participate in negotiations to enact a waiver to the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS), and scale up mRNA vaccine production to close the gaps in global need. Without these pivotal steps, Omicron will not be the last variant of concern to lengthen the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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