As Covid infections rise, vaccine controversy re-emerges

Published : 19 Jul 2022 08:39 PM | Updated : 19 Jul 2022 08:40 PM

After the British Queen's Platinum Jubilee celebrations it was diagnosed that an estimated 1.4 million people or one in 45 had caught the virus - up from one in 65 the week before. That was a rise of 43%. By the week ending 11 June, the Covid rates in the United Kingdom had climbed to: one in 50 in England- up from one in 70 the week before; one in 45 in Wales- up from one in 75; one in 45 in Northern Ireland- up from one in 65 and one in 30 in Scotland- up from one in 40.

Dr Mary Ramsay, from the UK Health Security Agency has observed that- it is encouraging that we are not seeing an increase in intensive care unit admissions, but we are monitoring data closely and assessing the possible impact of sub variants BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron which are not thought to be any more lethal than other types of Covid.

Coronavirus infection in Bangladesh has also suddenly started increasing. In May, the country reported only four Covid-linked deaths and 816 new cases, while 7,356 patients recovered from the disease, according to the DGHS. On 29 June the media reported that the country had registered three more Covid-linked deaths with 2,087 new infections in 24 hours. The new figures took the country's total death toll to 29,145 and the caseload to 19, 69, 361, according to the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS). The recovery rate had also declined to 96.84 per cent from previous days.

A week before the detection rate was below 10 per cent. This evolving scenario meant that the daily-case positivity rate had increased to 15.47 per cent from the two days ago. Health experts have consequently mentioned that there is no alternative way to control this fourth wave of the pandemic in the country without following different strict measures.

Consequently, the relevant health authorities in Bangladesh have issued six directives which have to be followed very carefully. This includes wearing a mask, avoiding public gatherings as much as possible, and strictly maintaining hygiene rules to contain coronavirus infection. It has also been suggested that the media, once again, needs to raise awareness among people for maintaining health guidelines. Health experts have also pointed out that people need to undergo Covid-19 test if they see Covid symptoms including fever, cough and cold. Citizens have also been advised to ensure the use of masks at all shopping malls, shops, markets, hotel-restaurants or face legal action. Interestingly, Imams of mosques have also been urged to give sermons for maintaining health guidelines and wearing masks to all during Jumma prayers. The Cabinet Division has subsequently sent a letter to the Secretaries and Divisional Commissioners of all the Ministries to implement these directives.

It may be recalled that the largest scientific study on the effectiveness of masks against Covid-19 was conducted in Bangladesh, under the supervision of the Stanford University of the United States. The researchers distributed free surgical and cloth masks to about 340,000 people in 600 villages and explained the proper use and benefits of the masks. The results of this study were published in 2021. Another similar study in Europe was published in the British Medical Journal. Both studies show that if everyone uses the face mask properly, the rate of Covid-19 infection can be reduced by up to 53 per cent. Another study in Bangkok found that proper use of masks when in contact with a person infected with Covid-19 reduces the risk of infection by about 77 per cent.

This evolving scenario regarding the Covid pandemic all over the world has drawn particular attention of international health experts. This has also led, according to UN experts, to a “Battle for Covid-19 Vaccines between the Rich and the Poor”.

This critical allegation arose recently when  the 164-member World Trade Organization (WTO) allegedly implicitly rubber-stamped a widely-condemned policy of “vaccine apartheid” which discriminates between the world’s poorer nations, mostly in Africa and Asia and the developed world. This format is based on wide-ranging intellectual property rights stipulations.  Max Lawson, Co-Chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance and Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam, pointed this out at the conclusion of the WTO’s ministerial meeting in the third week of June with the observation that “the conduct of rich countries at the WTO has been utterly shameful. The European Union (EU) has also blocked anything that resembles a meaningful intellectual property waiver. The UK and Switzerland have used negotiations to twist the knife and make any text even worse. The US has sat silently in negotiations with red lines designed to limit the impact of any agreement.” He added that “this is absolutely not the broad intellectual property waiver the world desperately needs to ensure access to vaccines and treatments for everyone, everywhere. The EU, UK, US and Switzerland blocked that text.” He also argued, according to Thalif Deen, that- the so-called compromise that was reached was largely a format that overrode the rights of developing countries interested in producing COVID-19 vaccines. Lawson warned that “put simply, it is technocratic fudge aimed at saving reputations, not lives”.

This also led People’s Vaccine Alliance to point out that waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines have sparked worldwide debate, from Washington to Beijing and Davos to the World Trade Organization. The People’s Vaccine Alliance also pointed out that in October 2020, South Africa and India proposed a broad waiver of the Trade Related aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement covering COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments. The EU, UK, and Switzerland had blocked that proposal. The US supported an IP waiver for only vaccines. The final text agreed was a watered-down waiver of one small clause of the TRIPS agreement relating to exports of vaccines. It also contained new barriers that are not in the original TRIPS agreement text.

In this context the New York Times has noted that WTO members agreed to loosen intellectual property rights “to allow developing countries to manufacture patented Covid-19 vaccines under certain circumstances.” The last three words have their own connotation. They make it easier to understand the criticism of Oxfam’s Lawson in this regard. He has added “South Africa and India have led a 20-month fight for the rights of developing countries to manufacture and access vaccines, tests, and treatments. It is disgraceful that rich countries have prevented the WTO from delivering a meaningful agreement on vaccines and have dodged their responsibility to take action on treatments while people die without them.”

Such criticism has also led some other health experts to observe that it is time for developing countries to be more daring and take bolder action to exercise their rights to override vaccine intellectual property rules. It is being underlined that they should undertake such circumvention to save lives.

Ben Phillips, author of ‘How to Fight Inequality’ has also commented that rich countries had acted to protect the monopolies of big pharmaceutical companies to determine production levels of pandemic-ending medicines. According to him, such a view was “causing deaths in developing countries. It is a handful of oligarchs who cannot share vs 8 billion people who want to be safe from pandemics. Almost everyone in every country in the world would be better off if big pharmaceutical companies made slightly less obscene profits so that enough doses of pandemic-ending medicines could be made by multiple producers across the world to reach everyone who needs them on time.”

How true! We in Bangladesh have already seen such restrictions having been imposed on us producing vaccines.

Mandeep S. Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations (CSOs), has also clearly observed that “unequal access to vaccines is a global scandal that flies in the face of the economic, social and technological progress we claim to have made as humanity”. In addition he has not only pointed out that CSOs around the world have long called for equity in health care and an end to excessive profiteering by the pharmaceutical industry at the expense of people’s well-being but also has drawn attention to the “need to closely examine the reasons for the lack of political will to meaningfully address these issues.”

In this context one needs to conclude by referring to the statement made last March by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet who observed that more than 10.5 billion vaccine doses have been administered globally, but the “grim reality” was that only around 13 per cent of people in low-income countries had been vaccinated, compared with almost 70 per cent in high-income countries. This can only be interpreted as failure to uphold human rights.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance