Originally published in OtherWords.
Stop me if this sounds familiar.
It’s been kind of a hard year, but I felt optimistic about the holidays. My wife and I had just scheduled our COVID-19 boosters. Even better, we’d been able to get our young child vaccinated.
We imagined a cautious return to simple family pleasures like indoor dining — and maybe playdates at indoor play centers during the long Midwestern winter. Maybe we’d even test our kid’s appetite for air travel and visit relatives in different parts of the country.
Then — another COVID-19 variant. Possible breakthrough infections. Travel bans and tumbling stock markets. And that familiar feeling of the rug being pulled out.
We don’t know a whole lot about the Omicron variant yet. Will it fizzle out like earlier variants, or run rampant like Delta? Whatever happens, we do know one thing: The longer it takes the world to get vaccinated, the more variants we’ll see.
Here in the United States, getting vaccination rates up means battling misinformation, apathy, and employers who won’t give their employees sick time. But vaccinating the rest of the world means battling corporate greed.
In poorer countries, vaccine access is limited by the patent protections for pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer, Modern, and Johnson & Johnson. That puts life-saving vaccines beyond the reach of what many countries can comfortably afford.
Omicron was first reported in South Africa. As my Institute for Policy Studies colleagues pointed out in their invaluable Inequality.org newsletter, “South Africa had pleaded with Western governments earlier this year to waive vaccine patents. Instead, South Africa ended up having to pay over double the price for doses that European Union nations paid.”
Thanks to price gouging like that, they note, Moderna alone has minted five new billionaires. Meanwhile South Africa’s vaccination rate hovers at less than 30 percent. With rates that low, new variants are inevitable.
But South Africa is comparatively lucky — less than 10 percent of people on the African continent are fully vaccinated.
According to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, rich countries have received about 50 times as many vaccine doses as poor countries. That means the virus has free rein to multiply over vast swathes of the planet. Every new infection increases the possibility of new variants — including some that may prove resistant to the existing vaccines.
To close those gaps, poorer countries need more vaccines — and fast.
The Biden administration courageously defied Big Pharma by backing a waiver for vaccine patents. But countries like Germany continue to resist it, and advocates insist the U.S. isn’t doing enough to fight for it.
Another solution involves simply sending doses overseas. The administration announced in August it had already exported 110 million doses, and it recently promised another 500 million. That’s good, but public health advocates are calling for far more.
Vaccine equity could save millions of lives and prevent needless suffering. That’s reason enough on its own.
But by protecting workers across the globe, it would also ease the global supply disruptions that are contributing to inflation here and abroad. And it would go a long way toward ensuring that the existing vaccines remain effective.
“You may be fully vaccinated, you may have had your booster, but you’re not that disconnected from the person who lives in a country where only 2 percent of the population is vaccinated,” warns Emory University virologist Boghuma Kabisen Titanji.
If these gaps persist, “the virus will catch up with us regardless of where you are.”
She’s right. Thanks to a new variant halfway around the world, I have to worry about whether I can take my kid to the diner down the road. But it’s a fitting holiday lesson, in a way — the more we give, the more we get. Better tell the administration to make a list.