Unequal Access to COVID-19 and AIDS Vaccines

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NANTUCKET, Massachusetts — A shocking statistic shows a global unequal access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Developed countries, although representing only one-fifth of the countries in the world, have purchased more than half of the available COVID-19 vaccines since their release to the public. COVAX, “an international partnership led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the World Health Organization” seeks to distribute vaccines to members of the population most at-risk. However, it had only managed to purchase 13% of available doses by March 2021. A disturbing similarity arises from such statistics, showing that there is unequal access to COVID-19 and AIDS vaccines as well as the availability of treatments in developing countries.

The Similarity

The lack of access to HIV/AIDS treatments in countries such as Kenya because of the expense of antiretroviral drugs during the early 2000s caused the epidemic to continue to rage across developing countries, leading to a rise in deaths. Kenya has the third largest HIV epidemic globally with roughly 1.5 million people living with the virus in 2019. Only 75% of those infected are currently receiving antiretroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS.

The Lean On Me Foundation is an organization “dedicated to the health, education and human rights of adolescent girls and young women” in Nairobi. Maurine Murenga, founder of the Lean On Me Foundation sees too many similarities to the COVID-19 pandemic today. Lean On Me is now involved in advocating for equal access to the COVID-19 vaccine in both developed and developing countries. Murenga fears a repeat of history where the West has widespread, easy access to the vaccine decades before the rest of the world.

What This Means

So, what does the idea that unequal access to COVID-19 and AIDS vaccines and treatments mean in a global context? A United Nations panel entitled “A Vaccine For All” took place last April. During which, Winnie Byanyima, the Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) said that “any delay in response to the current crisis equates to more loss of life and increased poverty.” This supports the belief of the U.N. that unequal access to the COVID-19 vaccine is a human rights abuse as it leads to a disproportionate loss of life in developing countries. Furthermore, it has ripple effects across the world.

Until the global population has equal access to the vaccine, the virus will continue to spread and mutate. It is “self-defeating” because it encourages the continued rise of cases and deaths. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization has been reminded by the COVID-19 vaccine distribution issues of the HIV/AIDS response during which, “the world was slow to deploy life-saving antiretroviral drugs to poor countries.”

What Organizations Are Doing

Distributing some of the United States’ projected surplus of vaccines to developing countries over the course of the next year should be a priority. Additionally,  organizations need to emphasize the obligation for companies such as Pfizer and Moderna to share vaccine technology to ensure larger production of the vaccines.

PEPFAR and The Global Fund are a few of the organizations that spent billions on buying antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV/AIDS and sending them to developing countries. Its efforts saved more than 20 million lives. The world must continue to learn from the HIV/AIDS crisis and the discrepancy with which it affected people globally. It can start by recognizing how unequal access to COVID-19 and AIDS vaccines contributes to the prevalence of these viruses.

A group of French doctors founded Doctors Without Borders, founded in 1968. They were eager to help “victims of war and major disasters.” The organization offers HIV/AIDS testing, counseling, treatment and implements preventative measures around the world. They focus equally on education and awareness in order to emphasize the need to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. In 2019, 74,400 people received treatment for HIV thanks to an MSF program.

Organizations fighting to end vaccine inequity all agree that if companies share the vaccine technology needed to save lives and facilitate “producing vaccines around the world, it wouldn’t be an either/or.” Everyone would have access to the vaccines.

Grace Manning
Photo: Flickr

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