President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks at a World Economic Forum dinner in Cape Town on September 4 2019. Picture: ELMOND JIYANE
President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks at a World Economic Forum dinner in Cape Town on September 4 2019. Picture: ELMOND JIYANE

President Cyril Ramaphosa has called on rich nations that have bought and hoarded more Covid-19 vaccines than they need to release their excess supply for poorer nations, warning that failure to distribute them fairly risks prolonging the health and economic crisis battering the globe.

During his virtual address to the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting on Tuesday, Ramaphosa kept to a similar theme as Chinese President Xi Jinping the previous day, stressing the need for global co-operation in tackling challenges from Covid-19 to the climate crisis. Countries acquiring doses of vaccines up to four times what their populations need undermines the principle that nations needed to co-operate for their mutual benefit, he said.

"We are all not safe if some countries are vaccinating their people and other countries are not," he said.

Vaccine nationalism has emerged as a major stumbling block to stopping the spread of the coronavirus. While the speedy development of vaccines has boosted markets on hopes that economic activity might return to some normality, the uneven access has raised fears that supply chain disruptions will persist and impose economic costs even on those countries that have inoculated their populations.

A study released by US non-profit organisation the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that failure to distribute vaccines to the poorest countries would impose a $9-trillion loss on the world economy, with rich nations shouldering half of that.

"We all know that Covid-19 anywhere is Covid-19 everywhere," said Børge Brende, the president of the WEF. If the virus is allowed to thrive in some places, the world risks it mutating and spreading, he said.

SA has been one of the countries left scrambling to source Covid-19 vaccines, coming in for fierce criticism for failing to place orders with manufacturers in time. The government has estimated that it needs to reach 40-million people to achieve herd, or population, immunity.

More than 30-million doses of vaccine have been promised to SA in direct deals with manufacturers and agreements with agencies including the Covax facility, organised by the World Health Organization (WHO) and global vaccine alliance Gavi.

In a separate session, Gavi CEO Seth Berkley said the initiative aims to distribute 145-million to 150-million vaccines in the first quarter of 2021, another 500-million in the second, reaching 2-billion by the end of the year, noting, "We’re only safe if everybody is safe."

Gavi estimates that countries have bought at least 800-million more doses than they need, with an option for another 1.4-billion, and it will look to access them — either through donations or purchases — and distribute them more evenly.

Berkley said the emergence of new variants and concerns about the effect on vaccine efficacy means there is more urgency in getting this done.

Tracking mutations

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, stressed that there is no evidence that the SA variant originated from the country. African countries are ahead of others in sequencing, meaning mutations can be tracked quicker. He welcomed US President Joe Biden’s decision to join Covax, a contrast to his predecessor, who sought to pull the country out of the WHO.

Ramaphosa, who is also AU chair, said a Covid-19 African vaccine acquisition task team has secured a provisional 270-million doses for the continent directly through vaccine manufacturers. This is in addition to the 600-million doses expected from the Covax initiative. But it is well short of what is needed for a continent of more than 1.3-billion people.

Update: January 26 2021
This article has been updated with comment and information throughout.

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