‘Dangerously off-track’: Call for global vaccine equity boost

Jolyon Attwooll

2/12/2021 4:50:29 PM

Omicron’s rise highlights the risks posed to Australia by world vaccination gaps, a high-profile group said in a letter to the Prime Minister.

Woman being vaccinated
The rise of Omicron has reinforced the need for wider vaccine coverage around the world. (Image: AAP)

A group of prominent Australian scientists, health and aid workers, as well as business leaders has written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling for more funds to boost COVID-19 vaccination rates around the world.
Citing the rise of a new variant of concern as an example of what can happen when the virus is left unchecked, they expressed their ‘grave concern’ over global vaccine inequity.
Organisations represented in the open letter include the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Global Health Alliance, Burnet Institute, Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).
They describe G20 commitments to fully vaccinate at least 40% of the world’s population by the end of 2021 and 70% by mid-2022 as ‘dangerously off-track’ and urge the Federal Government to step up existing efforts.
‘The emergence of Omicron shows how the virus mutates when left unchecked: more cases, more mutations and more chance of vaccine-resistant strains,’ they write.
While acknowledging ‘important contributions to date’, they say the crisis ‘is far from over’, and that greater focus and investment are needed on the issue.
‘We are calling for further urgent action by the Australian Government to commit its fair share to vaccinate the world and further assist our region,’ they said.
Specifically, they called for an additional $250 million to the COVAX fund to help get vaccines to vulnerable areas, citing an overall vaccination rate of 3% as well as rising case numbers in low-income countries.
‘This is unfair, immoral, [and] dangerous for those communities and dangerous for Australia,’ they wrote.
‘Looking forward, the WHO [World Health Organization] forecasts that there will be sufficient doses to achieve the global vaccination targets if there is equitable distribution.’
They also called for $50 million to counter vaccine hesitancy in the Indo-Pacific, as well as $100 million for CEPI to prepare for any future pandemics.
Dr Rodney Pearce, a South Australian GP, and the current chair of the Immunisation Coalition (IC), believes there is an ethical imperative to do more.
‘We are in the luxurious position of having the vaccines available, and from that privileged position, we should think about our place in the world and the ethics of that,’ he told newsGP.
‘It’s like all vaccine-preventable diseases. There’s no difference with COVID. We can get polio here if it’s overseas, we get measles if it’s overseas, and we can get COVID if it’s overseas.’
As Australia reaches an unexpectedly high rate of total vaccine coverage, Dr Pearce also agrees more investment is required to address vaccine hesitancy beyond the country’s borders.
‘Other systems don’t have the benefit of a strong general practice primary care infrastructure,’ he said.
‘Hesitancy is always an international question. For years, in the vaccine community, we’ve always had debate … about why people aren’t being vaccinated, the rumours, the myths.
‘And in each community, it’s community-specific stuff they need, they need a relationship with someone they trust.’
The Reverend Tim Costello is the spokesperson for the End COVID For All campaign, which brought together the organisations that wrote the open letter.
He said there are clear examples of how the Australian government has helped vaccination rollouts in the region – and that now these efforts need to be cast wider still.
‘We have seen the power of Australia’s contributions to our neighbours like Fiji, where more than 90% of the eligible population is now fully vaccinated and the Delta outbreak has been brought under control for the time being,’ he said.
‘As we have seen time and time again throughout this pandemic, COVID does not respect regional boundaries, so we must expand our support beyond our immediate Pacific neighbourhood.
‘Investing in the global COVAX facility will help ensure doses are available to lower-income countries who may not be able to procure doses on their own.’
Dr Pearce also said there is a way for individuals to help, citing a call earlier this year from the IC for Australians to donate to UNICEF to fund vaccine doses in low-income parts of the world. So far, more than $87,000 has been donated through the IC’s call.
‘It’s not just about Australia, it’s about keeping the world free of disease,’ Dr Pearce said. ‘No one’s free of it until everyone’s free of it.’
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