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Vaccine Nationalism Will Prolong COVID-19 Pandemic, Top Global Health Experts Warn World Leaders Ahead of Global Summit

Former CDC director, WHO chief scientist, other global health leaders call on wealthy countries to accelerate global vaccine production, technology sharing, and equitable distribution

Ahead of a global COVID-19 summit Wednesday convened by U.S. President Joe Biden at the United Nations General Assembly, leading experts in global health, epidemiology, and COVID-19 vaccines joined a press briefing Monday hosted by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) to call on the U.S. and governments of other high-income countries to drastically ramp up global COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing and equitable distribution. 

Watch the virtual briefing here. Read the transcript here (auto-generated by Zoom)

Speakers included former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Dr. Tom Frieden, Chair of the South African Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Dr. Salim Abdool Karim, Chief Medical Officer for Partners In Health Dr. Joia Mukherjee, and World Health Organization (WHO) Chief Scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan. PHR’s COVID-19 senior policy expert, Max Hadler, moderated the conversation and served as a representative of the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

The experts highlighted the urgency for world leaders to collaborate and aggressively invest in the expansion of vaccine manufacturing, technology transfer, and distribution efforts. 

Featured remarks from panelists, below, are available for media use. 

The following remarks are attributable to Max Hadler, MPH, MA, PHR’s COVID-19 senior policy expert:

“Of the nearly six billion COVID-19 doses administered to date, 0.4 percent have been in low-income countries, 80 percent of shots have been given to people in high-or upper-middle-income countries, many of which have now launched booster campaigns, while frontline health care workers and immunocompromised people in low-income countries have yet to receive a single dose. 

“From both a human rights and a public health perspective, this staggering inequity is unconscionable and it is untenable. What we need now is action, not more unfulfilled promises or hollow rhetoric.” 

The following remarks are attributable to Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives and former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

“There’s a myth that there’s a glut of vaccines coming in 2022 and you can see that myth promulgated by vaccine manufacturers. Equitable vaccine distribution isn’t just the right thing to do morally; it will also allow the world to resume travel and trade faster to reduce political instability and is crucially important to reduce the risk of emergence of even more dangerous variants. 

“It’s ethically imperative, epidemiologically essential and economically crucial that we transfer mRNA technology to manufacturing hubs. I believe that it needs to be combined with very strict licensing and quality controls that will protect the intellectual property investments and ensure vaccine integrity. [It’s] possible to accomplish all of this within three to six months if vaccine originators share their technology. We have to rapidly scale up production and distribution of effective vaccines to all countries, regardless of income level. The virus that causes COVID doesn’t check your bank account.” 

The following remarks are attributable to Salim Abdool Karim, MBChB, PhD, FRS, director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), chair of the South African Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19, and PHR Advisory Council member

“It’s called a pandemic for very specific reasons, as it affects everyone. We in the global community are all interdependent. There is no scenario that sees one country vaccinating and controlling the epidemic, while it is spreading rampantly in other parts of the world. We need to defeat this pandemic by dealing with it at a global level. To do that, we need a plan to vaccinate the world, because currently our vaccine distribution system is broken because it depends on willingness and ability to pay [or] on the ability to seek political favor. 

The following remarks are attributable to Joia Mukherjee, MD, MPH, chief medical officer for Partners In Health:  

“Scarcity is a political fiction and a political choice. The scarcity we are facing now is because we didn’t have a universal plan from day one to vaccinate the whole world. It makes no sense in a pandemic that we wouldn’t be fighting for universal access every day. We are all in it together, whether we think we are not. 

“Every variant is coming from an unvaccinated population with high levels of transmission, and those variants are coming whether you live in Cape Cod, Massachusetts or Manchester, United Kingdom. We have to fight against the notion of scarcity. We cannot be nationalists and fight this thing. This must be collaborative.”

The following remarks are attributable to Soumya Swaminathan, MD, MBBS, chief scientist at the World Health Organization

“When one is dealing with a pandemic, the bottom line is that you have to have this global solution. A country-by-country approach, a nationalistic approach, is not going to get us out of this pandemic. That’s why the WHO is calling for a few things to happen right away. One is to share the excess supplies with COVAX, because we know many countries have more than enough supplies. We’re averaging about 60,000 to 70,000 deaths a week — these deaths are all preventable, because we have the tools now. 

“It’s unacceptable that we should stand by and accept the fact that 8,000 to 10,000 of our fellow human beings will die [each day] because we cannot get the vaccines to those countries. The WHO is willing to support any company that is willing to transfer their proven technology, particularly mRNA, because it can be done very rapidly.”

The following remarks are attributable to Lawrence Gostin, JD, director of the O’Neill Institute for National & Global Health Law at Georgetown University, who was unable to attend the briefing live: 

“By hoarding global vaccine supplies, the United States and its allies are directly responsible for the cavernous inequalities in access to lifesaving vaccines. President Biden should propose a big and bold plan to vaccinate the world rapidly. He should massively ramp up domestic vaccine production for donation. Even more important, Biden should empower lower-income countries to produce their own vaccines. This requires transferring technology and know-how to Africa and other parts of the world. Charitable donations are all well and good. But lower-income countries want to be self-sufficient and not go hat in hand to rich countries for lifesaving vaccines.” 

Throughout the briefing, experts outlined public health and human rights imperatives for global vaccine access, key stats on current inequities, unfulfilled promises made by the U.S. government and other world leaders on vaccine pledges to date, and the steps wealthy nations must take to expand vaccine manufacturing, ensure equitable distribution, and end the COVID-19 pandemic. 

If you’d like to get in touch with Max Hadler, other PHR COVID-19 experts, or today’s speakers, please reach out to Alexa Lamanna at or (202) 320-2766. If you’d like to connect with Dr. Tom Frieden with Resolve to Save Lives, please contact Steven Chlapecka at or (917) 623-0246.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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