Looking at the vaccine being launched in the UK this week, Lois Chingandu did not feel high—on the contrary, she was worried.
Like most of us, she is also looking forward to getting vaccinated and returning to normal life.
But unlike many people at the moment, she did not feel that she had seen the light at the end of the darkness.
It is still unclear when the vaccine will be available in her country, Zimbabwe.
“Now I can only sit and wait, hoping that we can get it in my lifetime,” she said. “I live in fear. I am afraid that because I sit here, I will contract the new crown and die.”
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This may sound like an exaggeration, but Xindandu has seen very similar situations in the past.
She worked for an AIDS (HIV) prevention agency. In Harare (the capital of Zimbabwe) in the early 1990s, she watched thousands of people die from AIDS every day. At that time, there were drugs that could prevent deaths. Only those who can afford it can use it.
“Ultimately, it is for those with vested interests to decide that it is time to save the poor, and then we will get the vaccine.
“The People’s Vaccine”
This week, Xindandu participated in an initiative called “People’s Vaccine”, which aims to warn wealthy countries—especially the United States, the United Kingdom, EU countries, and Canada—not to stock up on vaccines.
A health worker wearing a protective suit takes a swab from a resident during a door-to-door testing in Zimbabwe.
The “People’s Vaccine” aims to ensure that countries like Zimbabwe also have equal opportunities.
“We know that most of the vaccines they have bought are more than three times the amount they need,” she said.
Some countries even buy more, and Canada will have enough vaccine stocks to vaccinate the entire population five times.
“Once they are given to the highest priority groups, there will be surplus vaccines. There is no discussion about sending vaccines to poor countries to those who really need them,” Xindandu said.
This is only part of the truth. There is currently a wide-ranging global initiative dedicated to distributing vaccines around the world, supported by the World Health Organization (WHO) and an alliance of international vaccine advocacy groups.
The goal of this new crown vaccine protection mechanism (COVAX) is to unite countries in the same camp so that they can discuss with pharmaceutical companies.
There are currently 189 countries participating. Among them, 92 are low- and middle-income countries, and the vaccines they use will be paid by donors. Britain has donated US$500 million to this fund.
Other countries will pay for the vaccine themselves, but they may get a better price than bargaining alone. They have now agreed on prices for the three vaccines, but negotiations with all the leading vaccines are still underway.
However, COVAX itself is not enough. Mexico is one of the countries that participated in this plan by paying for the vaccine itself.
Time is everything
Marta Delgado emphasized that vaccines should be promoted as soon as possible.
Marta Delgado is one of Mexico’s main vaccine negotiators. This work is quite difficult.
COVAX only covers 20% of the country’s population, and the vaccine it ordered has still not been approved.
“It’s different whether we get the vaccine in January, February, March or May or July. Vaccination in these months is very important for Mexico.”
It is winter in Mexico, and the number of cases is rapidly increasing; any delay may be a matter of life or death.
So Delgado has always negotiated directly with pharmaceutical companies.
A critical moment came on October 13, when she and her team reached an agreement with three vaccine companies. They even ordered a small amount of the first Pfizer vaccine to enter the market, which will be launched in Mexico around the end of December. The rest will be in place later.
“But at least in Mexico, we have money to buy vaccines,” she said. “I have seen other Latin American countries that don’t have enough money to buy vaccines, and they are not really guaranteed to get vaccines.”
The vaccine currently developed by Oxford University and the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has shown that it will not profit from sales in developing countries.
The vaccine is an important part of COVAX’s list, but it is currently approved for use in any country. Moreover, one vaccine is not enough for global inoculation.
“Everyone is grabbing a piece of cake”
Dr. Sultan said that before the efficacy of the vaccine is determined, some countries cannot afford to purchase the vaccine.
Just like Mexico, Pakistan is also in dialogue with the first vaccine manufacturer.
“We are definitely competing with rich countries, and that is no doubt,” said Dr Faisal Sultan from the Ministry of Health of Pakistan. He is a central figure in related negotiations.
“Everyone is grabbing a limited piece of cake. The size of the cake is now fixed, and everyone wants to get a piece. Obviously, this is a fight.”
He said that the situation of the competition so far is not bad, but they still have not been able to guarantee any vaccine. Pakistan cannot afford to pay before it knows that the vaccine is effective.
“It’s a luxury,” he said. “I think only a few countries might do this.”
“If we can get things and the combination is right, we should be fine, but we can’t blindly place bets.”
Major universities in Pakistan are conducting clinical tests for the vaccine of the Chinese company CanSinoBio, which may help the country’s supply, but this is not an equivalent exchange at present.
Intellectual property issues
Moreover, this is not purely a commercial issue. Marta Delgado acknowledged that Mexico’s good diplomatic relations were an important part of her successful negotiation of the agreement.
“Enterprises exist within the country,” Sultan also said, “and when you talk about the country, all factors such as politics and alliances will have an impact. But at present, what we have tried to do is to break away from any geography. Political friction, it may or may not be possible.”
Xindandu and the “People’s Vaccine” are calling for a more drastic approach than diplomacy or even COVAX.
They want vaccine companies to share their intellectual property rights so that they can create a more versatile vaccine.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) met on Thursday to decide whether to abolish intellectual property rules; it will announce its decision on December 17, but most wealthy countries oppose this.
For most parts of the world, there is still only waiting to get a vaccine.
“There will be people who continue to die from the new coronavirus,” Xindandu said. “At the same time, people in other countries are living normal lives.”