This week global leaders are coming together at the UN General Assembly, which presents an opportunity to refocus energy and commitment on ending the crisis phase of this pandemic and to make sure we’re better prepared for the next one. In this piece I talk about how we can apply what we have learned since early 2020 and embrace a set of global actions that chart an equitable course out of the pandemic—vaccinate now, contain the disease, and coordinate the global response.
We’ve reached the 18th month of the COVID-19 pandemic, a somber milestone marked by yet another surge of cases and deaths fueled by the Delta variant. This global crisis has been a health, economic and moral disaster playing out in waves in every geography, sparing none. While the pandemic has been a shared experience, the experience has not been the same everywhere.
In the past year-and-a-half, we have witnessed scientific breakthroughs with multiple safe and effective vaccines developed in record time, incredible multilateral cooperation resulting in billions of dollars raised for the response, and heroic efforts by healthcare and frontline workers in communities worldwide. But at the same time, we have also seen widening gaps in equity that go against everything our foundation and its partners have worked for over the past 20 years. The advent of vaccines was an opportunity to bend the curve in the direction of a global recovery. It turned out that unequal distribution and a lack of funding and supply meant the recovery has been precarious and halting.
In last year’s Goalkeepers report, Melinda and I shared modeling that warned that globally deaths would be higher if doses went predominantly to high income countries. To date, less than 2% of people in low-income countries have received a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to more than 60% of people in the U.S. The pull of the inequity we’re seeing isn’t only on the here and now—the economic recovery of low-income countries that are slow to be vaccinated is stuck in the starting blocks. These countries can expect to experience between 2-4% GDP losses through 2025 (averaging 3% per year in sub-Saharan Africa).
After 18 months of surprises around every corner with variants fueling new waves of disease there’s a tendency to say one cannot predict what will happen next. To some extent that’s true—nature is wily, and the virus will continue to mutate if it can transmit unchecked. But it’s also defeatist and incorrect to suggest that the acute phase of the pandemic will spiral on from one variant to the next. Just as the virus can change, so can the world’s response to it. Whether the world can finally turn the corner, however, will be determined by what we do next and how it’s done.
Our path out of the pandemic has always required one thing—a commitment to equity. A willingness to see that what happens in lower-income countries affects high-income countries. There is no nationalistic solution to this global problem. We’ve seen countries try and fail in that pursuit as variants emerge and threaten progression from the acute phase of the pandemic. There are three things that can be done in the coming months that can bring about the end of the acute phase of the pandemic and set the world on a different timeline in preparation for the next. I hope that leaders meeting virtually this week at the COVID Summit commit to actions that meet these needs:
1. Vaccinate Now
Governments and the private sector must work together to build a more transparent system to accelerate the global supply of vaccines. While a shortage of supply was a major issue in the first half of the year, recently 41 million doses per day have been distributed globally. It’s progress, but there’s a long way to go. The WHO/Gavi-led COVAX AMC, Africa CDC-led African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) and other channels can move vaccines, but they need more doses, visibility to supply, and sufficient money to acquire and deliver them. This is quickly turning into a logistics and financing challenge, and we know how to solve those types of problems. A consolidated global dashboard that provides real-time vaccine production and availability data will enable countries and global institutions to collaborate on filling access gaps. While donations to COVAX were slow to arrive, current funding can support delivery to about 30% of the population in lower- and middle-income countries. It’s a good start, and funding for 70% coverage in the lowest income countries needs to be made available by mid-2022 along with enhanced delivery capacity at the country level.
2. Contain the Disease
In addition to getting vaccines out to close the global equity gap we also must contain outbreaks as they happen. This can help keep countries out of the cycle of lockdowns that has left schools and businesses in constant flux. To reduce the risk of variants jumping from border to border, the world must invest in readily available rapid testing, a system for sharing genetic sequences, and a mechanism to deliver expertise and commodities (like oxygen, PPE, and life-saving drugs) quickly where they are needed. We’ve seen this done successfully with diseases like polio and malaria—using data to inform actions that bring outbreaks under control. We need to have expert support and response materials like oxygen, PPE, and life-saving drugs ready to deploy in the event of major outbreaks. The private sector has a role to play, using its expertise in logistics to reduce lead times and fill supply gaps.
3. Coordinate the Global Response
The establishment of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) in early 2020 was a milestone: governments, international organizations and the private sector came together in response to the crisis. We now need all governments to appoint a COVID-19 global lead, reporting to the head of state, and for these leads to regularly convene through 2022. With the support of independent monitoring this globally coordinated, time-limited task force can complement ACT-A and take us from aspiration to ending the pandemic through collective action and provide a model for the long-term coordination needed to prevent future pandemics.
For people involved in global health, what happened during the pandemic is disappointing, but not a surprise. The system whereby lower-income countries rely on the generosity of high-income country donors broke down when those donor countries were experiencing the same struggles. The next 18 months do not have to look like the past 18 months. But we cannot turn the page on this pandemic until we’ve addressed the fundamental inequity that stands in our way.
I’m optimistic about the potential of this moment. Health is not a zero-sum game—we can meet everyone’s needs through planning, investment, collaboration, and applying lessons learned. The cost of this pandemic has already been unacceptably high. Ending it cannot come at the cost of progress on other global health and development priorities. Reducing poverty, advancing gender equality, and finishing the job of eradicating polio are all possible through the same collective action that is needed to end this pandemic.
For those that want to go deeper, Gargee Ghosh who heads up the policy and advocacy division at the Gates Foundation has shared a white paper with more details on actions the world could take to end the COVID crisis.