The case for vaccinating the world — before it's too late

The case for vaccinating the world — before it's too late
Vice President Kamala Harris looks on as Victoria Legerwood-Rivera, an Attendance Counselor at Stoddert Elementary School in Washington, D.C., receives a COVID-19 vaccine during an event with President Joe Biden, celebrating the 50 millionth COVID-19 vaccination Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Epidemiologists from dozens of countries around the world issued a loud warning Tuesday that failure to ensure global administration of Covid-19 vaccines within the next year—at the very latest—could allow vaccine-resistant variants to spread among unprotected populations to such an extent that current shots are rendered ineffective.

According to a new People's Vaccine Alliance survey of 77 leading epidemiologists from 28 countries, two-thirds said they believe the international community has "a year or less" before Covid-19 mutations proliferate widely enough to make a majority of first-generation vaccines ineffective, requiring the production of new or modified shots—an opportunity that the pharmaceutical industry is already preparing to seize.

Nearly a third of the expert respondents said the more accurate timeframe for that alarming scenario is likely nine months or less.

More than 80% of the survey respondents agreed that "persistent low vaccine coverage in many countries would make it more likely for vaccine-resistant mutations to appear," underscoring the importance of global production and speedy distribution of highly effective existing shots.

"With millions of people around the world infected with this virus, new mutations arise every day," said Gregg Gonsalves, associate professor of epidemiology at Yale University. "Sometimes they find a niche that makes them more fit than their predecessors. These lucky variants could transmit more efficiently and potentially evade immune responses to previous strains."

"Unless we vaccinate the world," Gonsalves warned, "we leave the playing field open to more and more mutations, which could churn out variants that could evade our current vaccines and require booster shots to deal with them."

Quarraisha Abdool Karim, associate scientific director of CAPRISA and professor in clinical epidemiology at Columbia University, echoed Gonsalves' assessment, saying in a statement that the potential for Covid-19 variants to undercut vaccination progress serves as yet another example of "our interdependence" in the fight against a virus that has no regard for borders.

"High coverage rates and herd immunity in one country or region of the world while others, particularly low- and middle-income countries, continue to wait in line will create the perfect environment for the virus to continue to mutate and negate the benefits of any vaccine protection," said Karim. "In contrast, there are enormous benefits for everyone to have more equitable access to available doses of vaccines."

The experts' grave warnings came as President Joe Biden is reportedly considering whether to throw U.S. support behind an effort at the World Trade Organization to temporarily lift vaccine-related patent protections, a move that would end the pharmaceutical industry's stranglehold on vaccine production and allow for a massive acceleration of production and distribution around the world.

The People's Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of more than 50 international organizations, said Tuesday that if the current inoculation rate persists, it is "likely that only 10% of people in the majority of poor countries will be vaccinated in the next year."

Experts have warned that if restrictive intellectual property rules that benefit the for-profit drug industry are left in place, some developing nations may not get sufficient vaccine access until 2024.

While rich countries are currently inoculating their populations at an estimated rate of one person per second, successful vaccine rollouts could be imperiled by highly contagious new variants that develop and spread among nations without vaccine access—and eventually make their way into wealthy nations. One study released last week found that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is less effective against a coronavirus strain that originated in South Africa and has been detected in the United States.

"In many rich nations, vaccinated people are starting to feel safer, but unless we vaccinate all nations, there is a huge risk that the protection offered by vaccines will be shattered by fresh mutations," said Anna Marriott, health policy manager at Oxfam. "We need a people's vaccine, not only to protect people in the world's poorest countries, but to ensure that people all over the world who've already been vaccinated aren't put at risk again."

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