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There was barely any mention of vaccine equality at the UNGA

The high-profile development gathering seems to have forgotten the biggest pandemic issue
There was barely any mention of vaccine equality at the UNGA
Photo: Eduardo Munoz (Reuters)
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The United Nations General Assembly wrapped up in New York last week, and there was a most notable absence: covid.

Masks were required upon entrance to the UN headquarters (though the mandate wasn’t necessarily widely respected), and the delegations had to reduce their sizes to avoid overcrowding the venues. But in the many high-profile meetings and side gatherings that filled up the year’s biggest development conference, covid was often spoken of in the past tense, as a challenge that had been overcome that had caused important setbacks, but not as a main issue of current concern.

But while the new omicron-specific vaccine is administered in the global north—the fourth, or even fifth covid shot for many—only 16% of low-income country populations have completed the first round of immunization against the virus.

This is largely a consequence of vaccine inequality—and yet the subject was largely absent from the agenda.

Who has moved on from covid?

It’s fitting that the meetings happened in the US, where president Joe Biden declared the pandemic over even as the country continues to see around 500 covid deaths a day. The absence of conversations about vaccine equality signals a collective “moving on” from covid that mirrors the way the pandemic was handled by the international community, focusing disproportionately on the reality in wealthy nations, and ignoring the situation elsewhere in the world.

The only exception was an event on equitable access to vaccines organized by the UN Secretary General on Friday, Sept. 23 in the afternoon (or, when the attention to the UNGA is already fading); but the UN has arguably already done all it could to encourage vaccine equality, and the event didn’t feature countries or organizations, such as members of the EU that are opposing the patent waiver on covid technologies, that could put the UN’s recommendations into action.

Otherwise, throughout the week, the occasional mention of covid vaccine equality in the week’s events was due only to outspoken participants, such as World Health Organization (WHO) special envoy Ayoade Alakija, UNAIDS director Winnie Byanyima, or Maria Elena Bottazzi, the researcher who co-developed the low-cost, patent-free covid vaccine Corbevax.

Plenty of panels discussed pandemic preparedness, or the need for African countries to make their own therapeutics and medications—one of the conference’s most-heard statistics was that less than 1% of Africa’s vaccines are locally made. But those conversations seemed premature, and rang a bit hollow as global powers seemed to have skipped ahead of the current crisis, without showing much interest in filling the vaccination gap, nor in preparing the international cooperation field to make the next pandemic less unequal than the current one.