A health worker administers the Sinovac vaccine against the coronavirus at a community health center in Lambaro in Indonesia's Aceh province on Jan. 18. (Photo: Chaideer Mahyudddin/AFP)
The head of a leading Catholic organization has called on the European Union to help provide rapid access to Covid-19 vaccines following reports that rich countries have already cornered half of the supply.
Pirmin Spiegel, director-general of Misereor, the social development organization of German bishops, told Vatican Radio of his concerns following a report that 13 percent of the world's population has secured about half of the Covid vaccines.
Such lopsided vaccine distribution will be a stumbling block to achieve universal vaccination, which will take years unless wealthy nations pump in more money, he added.
"Let's not kid ourselves," Spiegel warned. "The world will only be able to deal with the Covid-19 crisis if we fight it everywhere, not just at home."
He quoted Tilman Rüppel of the Medical Missionary Institute in Würzburg, which works closely with Misereor.
Rüppel had warned against a "vaccination nationalism" that focuses only on one's own country and fails to recognize the pandemic's global implications. He said the aim should be to bring the virus under control in all countries as early as possible.
If this task is not undertaken on a priority basis, the coronavirus gets time to mutate, change genetically and become an even more difficult health problem, he noted.
Spiegel said: "The inequality in our world is also mapped in the issue of access to vaccines. That's why vaccines are a global public good. Therefore, there must be quotas for the entire world population to distribute them proportionately to the respective populations and to take into account levels of risk and vulnerability."
Spiegel sought a temporary suspension of patents on Covid-19 vaccines so that they can be produced and purchased easily.
In many poorer countries, the situation is critical with vaccines inaccessible.
More than 8 million people are infected in Brazil, while more than 200,000 people have died of Covid-19, said Spiegel.
In Manaus, capital of Brazilian state Amazonas, hospitals are overcrowded and lack protective equipment. No vaccine has been approved by the national health authority in the Latin American country.
The situation is similar in Mexico, where more than 134,000 people have died from Covid-19 and more than 1.5 million people have been affected. With a population of 130 million — the 10th-largest in the world — up to 45 percent of Mexico's low- and middle-income people are at risk of poverty. The government is merely appealing to curb the pandemic, he said.
Other Latin American countries like Bolivia and Argentina lack sufficient financial resources to purchase reliable vaccines. As a result, they have opted for the Russian-made Sputnik vaccine, which has been less extensively tested and controversial.
Misereor's partners reported that rural regions in Bolivia lack infrastructure (cooling systems, etc.) and qualified personnel. The government also refuses to allow civil society groups to take part in pandemic management.
While rich countries have already secured more vaccines than they need, many nations in the South, however, will have to wait "a long time before enough vaccine is available," Spiegel said.
"Let's make sure that all people who want it can be vaccinated quickly," the Misereor leader urged.
"In the spirit of universal brotherhood and solidarity, the poorest and most vulnerable need special attention. And we must not lose sight of other serious and growing crises in the South despite the pandemic."