More than half way into the 74th World Health Assembly, a serious discussion on the efforts to address vaccine inequities have been conspicuous by its absence. What has instead dominated much of the Assembly proceedings are talks for a pandemic treaty to address health emergencies in the future, and the important, but continuing push towards investigations on the origins of the virus, among other matters.
When this story went to print, the decision on the pandemic treaty was yet to be approved. The decision is expected to be approved at this Assembly. (See our story on this from earlier this week.)
To be sure, country after country has raised the issue of the lack of access to vaccines even as cases continue to rise in many parts of the world.
In his statement Prime Minister Gaston Browne, Antigua and Barbuda, called for the TRIPS waiver to end vaccine apartheid and he also criticised the vaccine allocation mechanism under the COVAX Facility particularly in relation to small island states.
Despite such statements, it seems that there has not been enough attention on the here and the now in the midst of all the discussions on preparedness. In our view, this risks looking away from and a silent acceptance to the mounting deaths from COVID-19. It also shows unwillingness to acknowledge and accept the limitations of the current mechanisms that have not met expectations on not only vaccine equity but an overall international mechanism for meeting the needs on diagnostics and treatments for COVID-19.
Without even admitting that there is a problem with current approaches, it will be near impossible to solve the challenges in any meaningful manner.
Undoubtedly expending political capital to put in place processes to address future health emergencies is important, but this cannot come at the expense of without first putting out existing fires.
We also understand that this is a difficult political tight rope to walk in the context of a fast-closing opportunity to build on the momentum to create lasting changes to fix how the world responds to disruptive health emergencies in the future.
This Assembly has shown that many member states have been unequivocal and clear about their preferences on the way WHO has to be run, financed, and the way it should fight future emergencies. Of course, agreeing on a future course of action on some of these issues by arriving at a consensus among 194 member states is another matter.
Despite the virtual nature of this event, and with 70 items on the agenda of the Assembly with a host of resolutions on different matters of international health policy from strengthening preparedness to local production of health products, the governing body meeting of WHO is a unique moment for countries to come together to assess what has worked and what did not during this pandemic. And yet, an opportunity that appears to have so far been missed.
This is perhaps not so surprising, given that in the Assembly which lasts more than a week, there is no dedicated forum where member states can discuss why vaccines have not been delivered as promised.
It is striking that even as the world’s worst health emergency in a century continues to unfold and decimates health systems in many parts of the world, WHO member states cannot seek accountability on these issues.
Given that WHO’s partner agencies have been leading on the delivery of vaccines, there appears to be no institutional mechanism that can enable member states to question powerful health agencies such as Gavi – The Vaccine Alliance, CEPI, and other actors, responsible for running the ACT Accelerator.
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