Mick Sheldrick discusses the growing gulf between the haves and have-nots when it comes to vaccine access
Last month, Global Citizen put on Vax Live: The Concert to Reunite the World, a star-studded show that raised millions and helped the anti-poverty organization send 26 million Covid-19 vaccine doses abroad. Jennifer Lopez, Foo Fighters and H.E.R. all took the stage, while President Biden and Pope Francis sent video messages pushing for greater vaccine equity.
“While it’s getting better for us, there are people all over the world — especially in Africa, India and in the Latin world — who still need our help and our vaccines,” Lopez said in front of an audience of 27,000 fully vaccinated essential workers.
We spoke to Mick Sheldrick, Co-Founder and Chief Policy, Impact and Government Affairs Officer at Global Citizen, about the benefit concert and what more needs to be done to ensure vaccines get into the hands of poorer countries.
Katie Couric Media: Can you tell us a bit about what Global Citizen was hoping to accomplish through Vax Live?
Mick Sheldrick: Our main aims were to boost access for the poorest countries to COVID-19 vaccines, and to promote vaccine acceptance and confidence globally. Because we know the pandemic won’t end until people everywhere can access a vaccine and get their shots.
We were thrilled that Vax Live was able to mobilize enough funds and dose sharing pledges from governments to provide over 26 million doses for vulnerable countries, plus an additional $302 million for the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) initiative, which is increasing global access to vaccines as well as COVID-19 tests and treatments.
You were central in securing commitments from around the world to support Vax Live’s initiatives. Can you take us behind the scenes and walk us through what that process was like?
It was a whirlwind! Over 100,000 actions taken by Global Citizen members calling for action by governments, philanthropists, and businesses; tweets from Selena Gomez to world leaders; our campaign co-chairs, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle appealing to the private sector; and our team engaging governments around the world to deliver
In the week leading up to the event, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed her nation would share an additional 200,000 doses and Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada came through with the biggest financial pledge of the campaign, $375 million CAD to ACT-A.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, French President Emmanuel Macron, Cisco Chairman and CEO Chuck Robbins, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen each responded immediately to appeals from Selena Gomez, pledging their support and also urging other companies and governments to also make commitments.
As momentum continued to build we got confirmation a few days out from the taping of the event that Pope Francis would record a special message in support of the campaign. We received the call at 4 a.m. in the morning L.A. time confirming he would participate and he then recorded the message that very same day!
Just hours before the broadcast was scheduled to air on May 8, Norway let us know that they would be expanding their commitment to donate all surplus vaccines, alongside an immediate additional pledge to share 4.5 million more doses. Combined with previous commitments to date, this brought their total doses pledged to one for each of Norway’s over 5 million citizens — an incredible show of leadership.
You’ve written that a roadmap hasn’t taken shape for how to immunize poorer countries. Why is that? And can you explain the importance of achieving a certain level of global immunity?
The WHO estimates that we need to reach global vaccination coverage of at least 70% to approach population-level immunity and effectively end the pandemic. While there would still be COVID cases, and it’s possible the disease could become endemic in parts of the world (including here in the United States), this would dramatically reduce the spread of the virus and
allow for a broader global re-opening.
Unfortunately, this won’t be achieved on our current course, with rich countries using their leverage to be positioned at the front of the line — not just on first rounds of vaccines but already booster shots — and over-purchasing billions of excess doses beyond their entire populations. This is causing an astonishing divergence between the haves and have-nots and
will only extend the length of the pandemic despite all of the evidence and analysis reinforcing that reality.
So the reason we don’t yet have a global roadmap to collective immunity that includes poorer nations, when one is urgently needed, is because rich countries have plainly prioritized their own populations and economies over the common good for the sake of short-term political interests.
The recent surge in India has served as a wake-up call that the only way through this pandemic is together. Only in recent weeks have we begun to see the G20 start to take the need for a comprehensive plan to achieve global coverage more seriously, beyond a few ad hoc commitments here and there. Ultimately, they will need to agree on a plan that includes a) much more funding on the table b) a significant scale up in dose sharing and c) greater cooperation from amongst the major vaccine manufacturers to ramp up global supply.
Some countries have committed to sharing vaccines directly in coordination with the WHO’s COVAX program. Is dose sharing enough? What more can be done in your view?
It will help immensely in the short term, and may in fact be a key source of supply for many developing nations in the months ahead given that millions of doses expected from India have been understandably delayed due to the crisis there.
The richest countries have over 1 billion excess doses coming their way and absolutely must share this as a minimum with COVAX for distribution to the poorest countries by the end of the summer. We need the U.K. to step up; it hasn’t committed anything yet and is expected to have 113 million surplus doses. The U.S. can do even more than the tremendous amount it has
pledged already. By July it is expected to have some 300 million surplus doses available.
But no, dose sharing is not enough in the medium to long term. We also need governments and the private sector to share the remaining $18.5 billion in financing required by COVAX and ACT-A to provide tests, treatments and vaccines with frontline workers and the most vulnerable.
Money alone is not enough however. We need knowledge and technology to also be shared in order to increase vaccine production especially if, as some estimates suggest, between 10-15 billion vaccines will be needed globally to achieve the 70% threshold.
Limited global vaccine supply is a big underlying problem, along with the concentration of production largely within, and primarily for, rich countries. We’ve allowed a handful of pharmaceutical companies to monopolize the technology and determine how narrow or wide a production network to work with while pursuing profit even in a once-in-a-century pandemic.
All options to increase supply must therefore be on the table, including governments pressuring pharma to open their locks and work collaboratively with producers around the world, and this is
where calls — including by Pope Francis at Vax Live — have come in for a temporary suspension of intellectual property for vaccines. The U.S. has now also declared support for this. In the end, extraordinary times call for extraordinary collaboration and the G20 needs to play a key role in
ensuring production increases significantly over the coming months.
You write that the U.S. donating millions of doses is a step in the right direction. Do you think this will have an impact on how the global community views vaccine equity?
I hope so, and in fact the U.S. has now committed to donate a total of at least 80 million doses by the end of June and, crucially, in coordination with COVAX to ensure they get to where they are needed most. This is a massive step beyond what any other wealthy nation has put forth, but it’s also just the tip of the iceberg as the U.S. is projected to have as much as 300 million excess doses by the end of July.
While the US hasn’t yet followed its reversal on patents with specific details, that move, its initial commitments on dose sharing, and investments in global vaccine manufacturing capacity are signs of emerging U.S. global leadership on ending the pandemic — which we have desperately needed. With additional dose sharing, an upsurge in financing and investment in manufacturing capacity — both in the U.S. and in different regions of the world -—the US has the potential to serve, to quote the President, as the “arsenal of vaccines” for the world. But I think we still have a ways to go towards realizing the global consensus and extraordinary cooperation needed to achieve vaccine equity.
In the short term, the announcements by the U.S. have certainly put pressure on other G7 countries, particularly the U.K., which will be playing host to the first in-person gathering of the group in just a few weeks. To give some perspective, because of the crisis in India COVAX is expected to be 140 million doses short by the end of May of what it was originally planning to provide to developing nations. According to UNICEF, wealthy nations can cover this shortfall — while still meeting their own vaccination targets — by donating just 20% of their supplies. A lot is resting on the U.K. and its chairing of the forthcoming G7 summit.
You’ve said that it’s not just governments that can step up. Corporations can play a part too. What role can the private sector play in ending the pandemic?
We saw corporations step up in a major way during Vax Live, committing over $40 million (that was matched bringing the total value up to over $65 million) for COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments. But of course we still need the private sector and particularly the world’s billionaires to step up further by committing more funding and by investing in vaccine manufacturing capacity. They can provide in-kind services and logistics to support vaccine rollout in developing countries. They can also join advocates and use their influence to demand that governments work together to end the pandemic.
There is obviously a major role for pharmaceutical companies to play, especially the leading vaccine manufacturers. We need them to provide COVAX with more doses, sooner, at not-for-profit prices; and we need them to work collaboratively by sharing knowledge and technology with producers all over the world so that enough doses are made for everyone, everywhere as soon as possible.
What can private citizens do to support vaccine equity?
The biggest thing citizens can do is honestly just speak out — on social media, talk to your Congress member or Member of Parliament (of course you can do that by taking action with Global Citizen). We need millions of people to let it be known to their governments that they don’t actually want a ‘me-first’ response to this pandemic; that they recognize that no one is safe until everyone is safe. That’s what being a Global Citizen is all about.
If people have the resources, they can also donate dollars for doses by visiting this site.