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Rising to the challenge: how to ensure an equitable response to the Covid-19 pandemic

The global health community must urgently rise to the gravity of this moment and not repeat the mistakes of the HIV/AIDS crisis, when poor policies were paid for in human lives

People walk by a recreation of an untitled mural painted by artist Keith Haring in New York.
People walk by a recreation of an untitled mural painted by artist Keith Haring in New York.Mario Tama / EL PAÍS

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues its grueling, destructive march, I, like many others, have taken some rare comfort in scenes of jubilant healthcare workers and fragile elders getting a vaccine that may well save their lives. These reassuring tableaus are a tonic – even if the pandemic has not yet begun to ebb, it makes it possible to begin to imagine its end.

And yet my optimism has been blunted by other distressing realities: hospitals from Maseru to Cape Town to Kampala are running out of medical oxygen, patients are being treated in parking lots for want of hospital beds. And then there are these numbers from the World Health Organization: 95% of the vaccine doses that have been administered to date have been administered in just 10 countries, and only one of them is a low-income country. Hope – like so many other valuable commodities – is unevenly distributed.

If scientists can develop vaccines and diagnostics for a disease that was unknown just a year ago, policymakers can surely devise a way to ensure equitable access to these lifesaving tools

I can’t help but see the parallels to the bleak, early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis, when poor policies were paid for in human lives. Then, as now, scientists developed drugs that offered hope in the face of a new and lethal disease. And yet, myopic policy decisions meant the world’s poorest, most vulnerable people did not have immediate access to these drugs. Instead, they languished as the epidemic spiraled out of control. Many African countries, especially smaller ones like Lesotho where I am from, lost hundreds of talented young professionals, robbing these nations of desperately required skills in critical areas like education. Scores of health workers perished too, and these countries’ healthcare sectors still haven’t fully recovered. These losses are immeasurable. Now, Covid-19 is repeating this devastation, and the sequelae, particularly for the most vulnerable nations, will persist long after the pandemic ends. Have we learned nothing from these failures?

Policymakers, the global health community and the private sector must urgently rise to the gravity of this moment. We can do so much better – if scientists can develop vaccines and diagnostics for a disease that was unknown just a year ago, policymakers can surely devise a way to ensure equitable access to these lifesaving tools. At the UN Technology Bank, we launched the Technology Access Partnership in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic as a way to ensure least developed countries’ access to diagnostics, medical devices (ventilators, oxygen, pulse oximeters, etc.), personal protective equipment and other medical technologies they need to protect their citizens. Our platform connects manufacturers and entrepreneurs in developing countries with global innovators, universities and others who make their intellectual property and technologies available in order to serve the common good. We act as a matchmaker between those who have technologies and those who are looking to produce them, providing technical, legal and regulatory guidance throughout the process. Our intention is to get as many products to as many people as possible to tackle this pandemic.

All governments must encourage their private sectors to voluntarily share technologies that will help least developed nations protect their own populations

But our work depends on partnership, political will and a break with orthodox thinking. Least developed countries urgently need access to relevant technologies in order to rapidly undertake local production of tests, treatments and other medical equipment. The Technology Bank has the mechanisms to support that transfer, but pharmaceutical companies and governments need to step up. We at the Technology Access Partnership have been in contact with manufacturers in developing countries that want to ramp up production of diagnostics, medical devices. They stand ready and willing to support this global effort. And yet, they struggle to access the technology they need – technology that other actors in the health sector currently hold and could easily share. This would save lives. All governments must encourage their private sectors to voluntarily share technologies that will help least developed nations protect their own populations.

We cannot accept a situation where the vast majority of the world’s population has no hope of being vaccinated in the near future; where even access to oxygen, masks and testing is not assured; and the most vulnerable nations stand to suffer social and economic consequences that will take generations to overcome. The scientists who have raced to develop these lifesaving technological breakthroughs have demonstrated the power of collaboration, solidarity and innovative thinking to solve enormous problems. Policymakers must follow their example.

Joshua Setipa has been the managing director of the UN Technology Bank for Least Developed Countries since November 2018.

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