Concern for humanity clear at Rome health summit

Many causes advocate a united front, but the pandemic has made it far more than a slogan.

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

Published: Wed 26 May 2021, 12:05 AM

As it again “flattens the curve”, fighting off a third deadly wave in the Covid-19 pandemic, Italy was indeed the appropriate host for the 2021 Global Health Summit in Rome last Friday as leaders, the pharmaceutical industry and experts from across the world gathered to share their thoughts, resolve and plans for action on global health.

President of the G20 this year, Italy joined the European Commission to host the event that culminated with the signing of the Rome Declaration, which vows multilateral support for preparedness, prevention, detection and response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, as well as funding for collaborative global response efforts.

As part of the declaration, rich nations and big drugmakers promised to do more to bridge the sharp divide in the means to fight Covid-19 through an increased flow of vaccines to poorer regions, an initiative crucial in the battle as it becomes entirely clear this is a shared worldwide struggle.

Many causes advocate a united front, but the pandemic has made it far more than a slogan. The effort requires unity as perhaps no other issue humanity has faced since the wars of the 20th century. Without comprehensive vaccination worldwide, the virus will continue to spread and mutate, only to be reintroduced and revisit populations over and over. Increasingly recognising the urgency facing that shared future, leaders and those in charge of production might be a bit late in a global initiative, but they are now embracing the necessity of a worldwide effort.

To date, some 1.53 billion doses have been administered, but the vast majority have been in developed, wealthier countries.

“We should hang our heads in shame,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told the Rome summit. “We are in a global war against a pandemic. When you are in a war and you are all allies, you must use all your weapons without hiding behind profit at the expense of lives.”

In response, major pharmaceutical companies pledged at the summit to deliver more Covid-19 vaccines at non-profit prices, while several G20 countries committed additional funding for the WHO-backed ACT-Accelerator and its core vaccine programme Covax. They also pledged to ship more vaccine doses to low- and middle-income countries.

Those promises must be followed with rapid, firm action on the ground and with transport planes in the air — clearly the only measure that will finally stop the pandemic is vaccination. Even nations that locked down and stopped the initial spread are now seeing infections rise. And of course no economy can survive an indefinite lockdown.

Amid a pandemic that has to date claimed more than 3.4 million lives worldwide, the most affluent countries are beginning to glimpse a return to normalcy. In poorer nations, it seems the virus is again gaining ground. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus told the virtual meeting that “the rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines is a triumph of science, but their inequitable distribution is a failure for humanity”.

The task of getting pandemic-fighting resources to low-income nations should now be the priority, and the outcome is dependent on wealthier countries and the pharmaceutical companies who manufacture vaccines. “As we prepare for the next pandemic, our priority must be to ensure that we all overcome the current one together. We must vaccinate the world, and do it fast,” Italian Prime Minister Draghi told the Rome summit.

Though the G20 gathering stopped short of calling for a patent waiver on Covid vaccines, Pfizer pledged to make 1 billion cut-price doses available this year to poorer nations. Another 1 billion vaccines will be provided next year, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said. Johnson & Johnson promised 200 million doses of its vaccine to Covax, while Moderna chief executive Stephane Bancel pledged up to 95 million doses for 2021 and 900 million for 2022.

In her speech to open the summit, European Commission president von der Leyen said Europe would donate at least 100 million doses to poorer nations by the end of the year, with commitments from Germany and France for 30 million doses and 15 million from Italy so far. She also announced that the European Commission will make a 1 billion euro investment in regional production hubs for Covid-19 vaccines in Africa, which includes bringing mRNA technology to the continent for the first time. At the moment, 99 per cent of the vaccine supply in Africa is imported.

Among the flurry of other proposals made at the Rome summit, the International Monetary Fund suggested a $50 billion plan to end the pandemic by vaccinating at least 40 per cent of all people by the end of 2021 and at least 60 per cent by the first half of 2022.

Any way it is organised or funded the task ahead is enormous. It already illustrates many of our shortcomings and limits — as well demonstrating our ability to care about and help others. We are not perfect, but it seems we are determined to make progress.

The promises come as Europe prepares to open up to international tourists and attempts to regain some footing back toward the way things were before. So-called vaccination passports are already being organised and “bubble” air routes carrying vaccinated passengers are delivering visitors. Europe is gearing up for the arrival of US tourists to help fuel its crucial tourism economy.

In this epic battle it seems we should enjoy the small moments of victory. The Global Health Summit in Rome provided one of those, a promise that the entire world would one day resume the good parts of how life was before a microscopic virus changed it all.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are journalists based in Milan

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