• Sergio Duarte


Image Source: The Lancet / Copyright © 2020 Michele Cattani/Getty Images

On April 2 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic spread worldwide, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted by consensus Resolution 74/270 recognizing the need for a global answer based on unity, solidarity, and renewed multilateral cooperation. Some international commentators expressed the hope that the global health emergency would stimulate cooperation among nations for the definition and adoption of solidary measures to confront the pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) acted quickly to disseminate reliable information on the evolution of the disease and to find ways to prevent contagion and increase the production and distribution of vaccines through the program known as COVAX, financed by donations from G-7 countries. Up to this moment, however, the initial pledge of US$7.5 billion has not yet been fully met. The Director-general of WHO estimates that it will be very difficult for the agency to realize the objective of providing immunization to even 20% of the populations of developing countries.

Regretfully, the individual reaction of the members of the international community has been slow and insufficient, frustrating the hope of united, coherent, and effective global action. Some leaders adopted negativist and ultra-nationalistic postures that proved counterproductive. As soon as the dissemination of the virus threatened to become a health problem of alarming proportions, several countries that had the necessary financial resources started hoarding respirators, medicine, personal protective equipment, and other products for their own hospitals. They also acted quickly to ensure the delivery of vaccine doses in amounts many times greater than their national needs. Others had to wait until the world supply recovered, and many are not in a position to purchase them anyway. Some governments imposed export restrictions or established incentives to import those items, causing or aggravating distortions of trade patterns harmful to the wide majority of poorer countries in the developing world.

Nations that possessed advanced scientific and industrial capability in the field of pharmacology stepped up research to develop effective vaccines. Multibillion-dollar financing programs set by their respective governments brought encouraging results in record time. However, production of reliable vaccines on a worldwide scale depends on a small group of large multinational corporations based in the United States, United Kingdom, and the European Union, as well as in India, the largest producer of vaccines on the planet. So far, efforts to soften patent regulations have not been successful. Other countries have laboratories and installations of with smaller capacity, although not less qualified from the scientific point of view, such as the Gamaleya Center in Russia as well as the Butantan Institute and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil. These institutions are making extraordinary efforts to provide vaccines with the necessary speed, despite drawbacks due to misguided official perceptions from different quarters of the true impact of the pandemic.

Since the middle of last year countries that had abundant financial resources but no vaccine production capacity scrambled to ensure they would have privileged access to immunizing agents still under research elsewhere, even before their production and licensing by national regulatory organs. Some European countries established an alliance with this objective, later enlarged to encompass the whole European Union. Countries that might have been able to act quickly but did not have the competence or the foresight to join the competition earlier missed the opportunity and had to work harder to contain the damage.

The effects of the inequality between richer and poorer countries with regard to the ability to confront the pandemic requires greater attention by world leaders. The mentality and practice of “my country first” reflect a narrow and parochial view of national interest to the detriment of the common good. This may have disastrous consequences in a not-too-distant future.

No country will be safe, regardless of its capacity to immunize all of its people, as long as it is not possible to vaccinate the whole population of the globe, or at least a number high enough block further dissemination and control the mutations of this virus. A concentrated effort by richer countries in cooperation with the remainder of the international community with the goal of finally controlling the pandemic worldwide should not be understood as charity or selfless humanitarian assistance. On the contrary, it is in interest and to the benefit of all. Full vaccination within the national territory will not be an “insurance policy” if the rest of the world is not equally protected. It is imperative to prevent Covid-19 from becoming endemic or resurfacing periodically in the form of new, more contagious, and lethal variants to haunt the world and decimate entire populations, as was the case with the ancient plagues in the Middle Ages.

We know that the viruses of lethal respiratory diseases such as SARS and MERS[1] developed from animals. As the predatory action of human beings on the environment shrinks the habitat of many species, increasing the chances of direct contact, the possibility of the rise of new pandemics also increases. Unfortunately, humankind as a whole seems far from understanding the need to live in harmony with nature and consequently this threat remains looming. Once again, the necessary and urgent answers are the intensification of collective efforts to identify and prevent risks and the universalization of access to treatment and immunization.

Besides increasing other forms of cooperation to defeat the ongoing pandemic, humankind must prepare itself to continue producing vaccines in sufficient quantity and regularity to support yearly universal immunization campaigns. Cooperation, solidarity and common sense are indispensable tools for success in this battle, in which we must all be engaged.

As this article was being finalized, the world press brought the news of an initiative sponsored by several European countries and the European Union itself, as well as the governments of Chile, Costa Rica, South Korea, Indonesia and South Africa, among others, with the support of the World Health Organization. The idea would be to propose an international treaty for coordinated cooperation in response to future pandemics. This is a welcome initiative that of course still needs to be further debated and structured, butthat provides an opportunity for the union of the international community with the common objective of strengthening peaceful cooperation among nations to confront a serious situation that affects all.

Sérgio Duarte

Ambassador (ret.) President of Pugwash

Conferences on Science and World Affairs

[1] SARS: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome; MERS: Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome.

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