Why should healthy people in Europe be vaccined before vulnerable people in Africa? Jean Van Wetter, managing director of the Belgian development agency Enabel, makes the case for real European and global COVID-19 solidarity.
Last week, a long-time colleague of Enabel in the Democratic Republic of Congo died from COVID-19. He was 62 years old and father of four children. It was a shock for everyone on our team. It always is when a colleague passes away, but in this case, it made it clear that the pandemic is real in African countries. People that we know, that we hold dear and that we rely on are exposed to the virus in a similar way as we are. But where we in Europe expect a vaccine for everyone in the short run, the situation on the African continent is very different.
If most African countries until now have been relatively spared from the first and second wave of the pandemic that we have known in Europe, there is now growing evidence that Africa is increasingly being hit by COVID-19. The question of access to vaccination for these countries is therefore now more crucial than ever.
We have talked much about international solidarity over the last year and the fact that we are as strong as our weakest link when a pandemic such as COVID-19 happens. But recent developments in Europe and the rest of the world have shown that protectionist measures are on the increase. Countries close their borders and do not trust measures taken by others. It is each for their own, both in terms of protective measures as well as in vaccination strategy
In this regard, I was shocked by recent criticism of country leaders on the European Commission vaccination strategy. If vaccination programmes are slower than for example in the UK or in Israel, it is precisely because there is a collective effort to ensure that every Member State of the EU receives its fair share of vaccines at the same time. Hearing politicians in various EU countries say they would have dealt better with pharma firms by themselves, creates an image of the worst-case scenario of a divided Europe.
One could apply this reasoning beyond the EU borders. Why can we not guarantee vaccination of every vulnerable person in the world?
Why should I, a 43-year-old man in good health, receive the vaccine before my older more vulnerable colleague in Congo? It is not logical in a world where all humans are supposed to be born equal. It is possible to change this wrong by joining forces and advocating international solidarity.
It is for those reasons that Enabel aims at guaranteeing vaccines for all in the countries where we work by:
- Investing in access to vaccines for everyone in our partner countries in the short run,
Supporting governments in the development of a vaccination strategy for priority groups,
- Ensuring fair distribution on the global level instead of redistribution of our surpluses,
- Assisting governments in the quality control of COVID-19 vaccines to mitigate the risk of fake or sub-standard vaccines,
- Supporting the WHO, the EU and UN agencies in their plea to the pharma giants to stop the patents on the COVID-19 vaccines,
- Setting up partnerships for technology transfer, so that countries can start their own vaccine production.
In several countries Enabel, as a signatory of the Belgian charter of quality of medicines in lower and middle-income countries, is assisting governments to assure the quality of medical products. In DR Congo for example, Enabel has been supporting the public medicine procurement system, at a national level and on the ground for more than a decade. This is done in partnership with the Congolese Ministry of Health, the Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp and the international platform Quamed. A quality assurance system will also improve screening and distribution of future COVID-19 vaccines in a booming vaccine market, where the risk of fake vaccines is real. These concrete efforts are reinforced by a simultaneous commitment of Enabel, ITM Antwerp and Quamed at policy level where they contribute to sensitise international actors about the risks of fake vaccines, in particular in countries with weak drug regulation mechanisms. We also stress the need for a high-level multidisciplinary approach involving Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice under the leadership of the UN Office on Drugs & Crime.
If at a global level we fail to secure equal access to vaccines on the African continent, the fight against COVID-19 is only partially fought. It is very likely that we will find ourselves frequently in lockdowns and other limiting measures for a long period of time. Vaccines need to be made available now. There is no time to waste, let’s find pragmatic solutions on the question of patents.