The arrival of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines has thrown the world a lifeline. But their rollout has also laid bare a gulf in access between rich and poor countries that threatens to delay the end of the pandemic, costing more lives and further economic damage.
While tens of millions of people have now received a first shot of vaccine in the developed world, just 25 doses had been given in one poor country as of mid-January. This makes no sense. In the battle against a pandemic that respects no borders, the virus has to be beaten everywhere.
The urgency is clear. The emergence of new variants of the coronavirus is a matter of growing concern and only underlines the need to reduce the amount of virus circulating worldwide to prevent further, more dangerous, strains developing. None of us can afford the risk of pools of virus that become breeding grounds for new mutations.
For richer countries, making sure that the world’s poor get fair access to vaccines is a matter of self-interest. By investing to expand access to vaccines – alongside COVID-19 tests and treatments – the developed world has an opportunity to shore up economic prospects for a swathe of countries that hold the key to future growth in the world economy.
Indeed, a new study commissioned by the ICC Research Foundation has found that the global economy stands to lose as much as $9.2 trillion in the absence of multilateral coordination guaranteeing vaccine access and distribution, as much as half of which would fall on advanced economies.
In other words, even if rich nations vaccinate all their citizens, they will continue to suffer huge economic losses if infection spreads unabated in emerging markets because of the interconnected nature of global commerce.
There is an agreed mechanism to fix this – and it is a bargain compared to the economic cost of failing to act. The Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT Accelerator, a coalition of nine global health organizations working on common tools to end the epidemic), launched last April, has built the world’s largest portfolio of vaccines, tests and treatments needed to tackle the pandemic, alongside an advanced purchasing system to get them to the places they are needed.
It is the fastest and most effective way to get lives and livelihoods back to normal – for the simple reason that so long as the virus exists anywhere it is a threat everywhere.
The challenge now is to ensure that the ACT Accelerator secures the remaining funding that it needs. A further $27 billion is required to meet its 2021 goals, of which $14 billion is the immediate need in the next six months, which includes the delivery of 2 billion doses of vaccine through its COVAX facility. At least 1.3 billion of these doses are earmarked for 92 poorer countries and deliveries are due to start in the first quarter.
The decision by U.S. President Joe Biden to join COVAX is excellent news and will certainly be a major help in financing the scheme. But other rich countries still need to do more. As co-chairs of the ACT Accelerator Facilitation Council, we are looking to finance ministers to mobilise the necessary financial resources.
This requires a whole-of-government response that must go beyond traditional development aid budgets. It may also be necessary to frontload funding via the bond market, such as through the IFFIm mechanism, so that future government commitments are translated into cash today. Until the root cause – COVID-19 – is suppressed across the world, economies will not recover.
One year ago, on January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Since then, the global death toll from the virus has risen to more than 2 million and the International Monetary Fund estimates the pandemic will cost the global economy $28 trillion in lost output by 2025.
Vaccines offer light at the end of the tunnel. But for now the virus still has the upper hand, with around 5 million new cases being recorded worldwide every week.
For world leaders and finance ministers alike, this is the pivotal moment to turn the tide by investing in equitable access in order to end the pandemic as quickly as possibly – for all our futures.