By Juan Manuel Santos/ Special to EL ESPECTADOR, April 17, 2021
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The former President of Colombia, together with 175 world leaders, including Nobel Prize winners and heads of state from every continent, all are asking the President of the United States to intercede for a global immunization against the pandemic.
The great challenges define the legacy of a leader. President Obama, for example, directed the rescue of the economy after the world financial crisis. Chancellor Merkel led the acceptance of refugees fleeing from wars, when few were willing to do it. Nelson Mandela fought against apartheid in South Africa, and he made peace with his lifelong adversaries, as we have done in Colombia.
Right now President Biden carries not just one challenge on his shoulders, but several that are of great magnitude. One hundred days have not yet passed in his administration and it’s the world’s good fortune that we are seeing a good example of his leadership. He has taken internal actions to control the pandemic, works to achieve progressive corporate taxes, and has made global efforts to fight climate change.
However, the most urgent test, which requires effort and leadership of the international community, is to put an end to the pandemic. We should be ashamed of the state of the global vaccination plan: 86% of all of the doses of vaccine have been sent to the rich countries, with only 0.1% for the countries with low incomes. The majority of poor countries are confronting the possibility of waiting at least until 2024 to have their population immunized. Some may never reach that point.
There are more than enough leaders in the world that are taking appropriate measures to conquer the pandemic within their own frontiers. But the end of the pandemic can’t be achieved individually. Covid-19, at any location, is a threat to all of humanity. As has been said so often, no one is safe until all of us are safe. And conquering this virus inevitably depends on the leadership of the United States.
For that reason, together with 175 world leaders, among them Nobel Prize winners and heads of state from every continent, I now ask President Biden to play the role that only he can play: increase the world supply of doses of safe and effective vaccines, and give the people of the whole planet the opportunity to wake up to a world that is free of the virus.
We are asking President Biden to support a temporary extension by the World Trade Organization (OMC in Spanish) of the intellectual property regulations on vaccines and technologies that fight Covid-19. This measure, combined with leadership by the United States in the transfer of technology through the World Health Organization, and a globally coordinated investment in the distribution of the capacity for the manufacture, would permit the world to produce billions more vaccinations, particularly in the developing world, so that we can conquer this virus everywhere as soon as possible.
Nobody should take this call lightly. Everyone believes in the power of market competition. We also recognize the role of intellectual property laws to stimulate innovation, one of the motors of economic and technological progress, including, of course, progress in the production of medications. But in this case the intellectual property system has turned into an impediment to obtaining the results that are required, and it should not be protected at all costs.
This unprecedented pandemic, which has killed more than three million people, has brought billions of people into poverty and it also threatens us with deadly new outbreaks; it demands measures that are also unprecedented.
The support that is limited to rich countries by the protection of intellectual property is generating great frustration—and much outrage—because it keeps the rest of the world from using the available capacity, or even from augmenting it, to manufacture the vaccines that are needed. Let’s be clear: taking the side of the pharmaceutical monopolies in a pandemic allows many more people to die, when they could be saved. It’s that simple.
The global solutions that are based on donations or that support the very limited COVAX initiative are useful, but far from being sufficient. What is really needed is having qualified manufacturers all over the world that are able to produce vaccines against Covid-19.
It’s in times like this that we need strategically directed government action. After all, it’s the governments that have financed the development of the vaccines against Covid-19. A temporary extension until the virus can be eliminated would be a pragmatic and effective global solution. It’s encouraging that the Biden administration is considering support for the extension proposal that South Africa, India, and other countries have proposed to the WTO. We hope that the other countries will unite to push this initiative forward.
Supporting an action of this kind to make the vaccine available to everyone everywhere—a real vaccination for all humanity—would make the United States and the rest of the world safer and more prosperous. And it would help prevent the development of new variants of Covid-19. That would threaten even those who have already been vaccinated.
It also makes sense from the economic point of view. According to recent data, the current inequality in the distribution of the vaccines could cost approximately USD $9.2 billion in global economic losses. The United States could lose up to USD $1.3 billion of gross domestic product and USD $2,700 per person in 2021, which is USD $1,300 more than the recent check that every US citizen received as help from the government.
An exemption from the WTO rule, permitting every country to produce vaccines, and a coordinated investment for their manufacture, would be more than a great gesture of solidarity, very necessary in a world that is so globalized. The whole developed world would do well to follow that path. In fact, this is a great opportunity for the United States to recover its global leadership, so absent and so necessary in recent times. The countries and the citizens of the whole world will never forget where the oldest democracy in the world stood in this hour of need.
I have had the privilege of working closely with President Biden, as Vice President and earlier when he was a Senator, and he has always been a tireless defender of peace and security. The world is fortunate to have him in the White House now. Together with other world leaders, we ask him to take the urgent steps that are needed to put an end to this pandemic. That would be one of his great legacies.