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Rody: Gross injustice to haunt world if poor won’t access COVID-19 vaccines

MJ Blancaflor

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President Rodrigo Duterte has warned the international community that leaving poor countries in the lurch of COVID-19 vaccine access is a “gross injustice” that will haunt the world for a long time as rich governments rapidly claim the world’s lion’s share of doses.

The President joined 141 world leaders in the two-day special session of the United Nations General Assembly which opened Thursday to discuss global response against COVID-19, where he renewed his call for universal access to safe and effective vaccines against the virus.

“If any country is excluded by reason of poverty or strategic unimportance, this gross injustice will haunt the world for a long time. It will completely discredit the values upon which the United Nations was founded,” he said in a pre-recorded speech aired early Friday morning (Philippine time).

Duterte issued the statement after several pharmaceutical giants reported promising late-stage trial results of their candidate vaccines, providing hopes that one-third of the world’s population may be inoculated by the end of 2021.

The makers of the three vaccines that seem closest to widespread distribution — AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Moderna — estimate a total production capacity of 5.3 billion doses for 2021, which could cover between 2.6 billion and 3.1 billion people.

An obvious problem, however, is that doses won’t be distributed equitably because of high demand and limited supply.

The Duke University in North Carolina, a key research center which has been monitoring vaccine deals worldwide, estimates that 6.4 billion doses of potential doses have been bought, while another 3.2 billion are either under negotiation or reserved.

Because of these early purchases or reservations by wealthy states, low-income countries might be forced wait until 2023 or 2024 for vaccination, according to health experts and observers, noting that it could take three to four years to produce enough vaccines to immunize the global population.

“We cannot let this happen. No one is safe unless everyone is safe,” said Duterte, whose government is also scrambling to seal key deals with manufacturers.

The President, in his speech, also underscored that “life-saving services and products must be made accessible to the most vulnerable” as he urged governments to act “not as separate nations, but one humanity” to address the health crisis.

“When everyone needs the same limited resources, the compulsion to resort to a zero-sum approach is amplified. Yet, this pandemic demands the opposite response — enhanced cooperation,” he said.

“Our collective initiatives in the UN and other multilateral frameworks are our best chance to defeat COVID-19,” the President added.

Duterte also noted that the Philippines will contribute to the pooling of global resources to address the crisis and he vowed to help other countries “without preconditions.”

He did not elaborate, but the country is among the signatories of the COVAX facility — a mechanism backed by the World Health Organization that seeks to ensure accessible and equitable access to vaccines.

Countries representing about 64 percent of the world population or about 156 states have signed up to COVAX including China, the biggest economy to back the initiative so far. Neither the United States nor Russia have signed up.

Over 64.5 million individuals worldwide have been infected with COVID-19, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University on Thursday. The death toll, meanwhile, stands at 1.49 million.

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