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As new COVID-19 variant spreads, human rights lawyer points to 'vaccine apartheid'

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Health officials around the world are racing to get a better understanding of the new COVID-19 variant, dubbed omicron. This new strain was first detected in Botswana and South Africa, but new cases have now been confirmed in several more countries as far away as Europe and Asia. And those cases are rising. Here in the U.S., President Biden and his administration have been developing a strategy to counter omicron, assuming it will get here at some point if it isn't already.

Speaking this morning on ABC's "This Week," the nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said getting more Americans vaccinated is still the best defense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: When you have a virus that has already gone to multiple countries, inevitably, it will be here. The question is, will we be prepared for it? And the preparation that we have ongoing for what we're doing now with the delta variant just needs to be revved up. And that's - the bottom line of that is the preparation by getting more and more people vaccinated and getting the fully vaccinated boosted.

FOLKENFLIK: Dr. Fauci's comments underline the importance of vaccines in the fight against COVID-19. They are also a reminder of the fact that wealthy nations like the U.S. have access to vastly more vaccine doses than do most countries around the world.

To discuss that further, we sought out the perspective of Fatima Hassan. She's a human rights lawyer and founder of the Health Justice Initiative in South Africa. Fatima Hassan, welcome.

FATIMA HASSAN: Thank you. It's such an honor to be on the show.

FOLKENFLIK: You've written that there's a kind of vaccine apartheid, a vaccine nationalism between countries like South Africa and a small number of richer countries, such as the U.S. What do you mean by the term?

HASSAN: So when we talk about vaccine apartheid, which we all remember - it's a term we've been using since 2020, when the pandemic commenced - we warned that if you have a situation of the haves and the have nots, if you have a situation of only prioritizing certain countries with vaccine supplies, then you will have the current global vaccination rates. So when we say vaccine apartheid, we look at the figures, for example, in terms of the global north vaccination rate versus what's happening in Africa. The current figure, as of the end of November 2021, is 7%. Seven percent of people in Africa are fully vaccinated. Now, you can't scale up vaccination or vaccination rates if you don't have vaccines. And you won't have vaccines if you don't have timely access to vaccine supplies.

FOLKENFLIK: When you talk about vaccine apartheid, you know, that harkens back to the ugly period in your own nation's history of rigid and violent structures set up by the earlier racist white regime there. To what do you ascribe this sharp divide that you're describing as the vaccine apartheid now?

HASSAN: I mean, I think that's such a great question because I grew up in apartheid. I know what it means to be a second-class citizen or even a third-class citizen. And this is what we saw in this current pandemic. Black and brown people in Latin America, in Asia and Africa were told to wait.

We were told that the knowledge wouldn't be shared with us. We should participate in clinical trials. We should contribute to scientific knowledge, but we should wait, basically last in line, like we did during apartheid, for access to any kind of service, whether it was education or health, before we could get our vaccine. So we had a situation that played out this year, which, again, was just really, really problematic because, we believe, the world has decided - or those in power have decided that intellectual property protections and the shareholdings and the interests of pharmaceutical companies are more important than human life.

FOLKENFLIK: And briefly, do you think that's as a result of the financial considerations that you're talking about or a result, in some ways, that you applied initially, about the idea that these are Black and brown people, these are people of Asian and African descent?

HASSAN: Look; I - in my own view, I think it's a combination of two things. The one is that Black and brown lives are dispensable. And we saw that with the HIV/AIDS crisis. We had a similar situation in terms of how long it took for people to be able to access affordable, lifesaving technologies and treatments. And in this case, we're seeing it playing out with vaccines.

But the second reason is because there is a prioritization of property rights over human rights. And I hope that the world has woken up in the last 72 hours because this is exactly what we were warning about, that in order to get out of this pandemic - it's very different to the HIV/AIDS situation - you've got to vaccinate everyone, everywhere and fast. You can't have staggered vaccine programs around the world and think that you're going to be immune to the multiple variants that we're seeing and to the way in which this virus mutates.

And, you know, one really hopes that global leaders will come together now and say, OK, let us reset. Let us have a reckoning. And let us make sure that every person on the planet is able to get vaccinated with supplies that are provided in a timely and expeditious basis.

FOLKENFLIK: So let's talk about a couple of the initiatives that have been adopted. You know, I think prominent officials in the U.S. and other developed nations would point to the donation of many, many millions of COVID vaccine doses to developing countries. The U.N. has an initiative called COVAX, aimed at distributing vaccines to poorer nations around the globe. How adequate are those?

HASSAN: We've had a lot of promises of pledges and of donations made by G-7 leaders and G-20 leaders. Our assessment and our analysis of the data shows that, in most cases, only less than 20% of those promises have been met. The second problem with donations is that, while they are not coming in fast enough or, you know, they're not fully being honored, is that donations are not sustainable. They're based on, you know, political considerations often. They're based on the whims of some government leader who decides that they will donate to certain countries and not donate to other countries, again, because of diplomatic - what we call geopolitical reasons or factors. So donations are not sustainable. They're not equitable. They are not a just solution to how you actually address this pandemic. They may be helpful in the short term, but they're definitely not a long-term solution.

FOLKENFLIK: Finally, what would you like to see happen now?

HASSAN: We need to get vaccines really fast into Africa in the next six weeks so that we can address the figure of 7%. We need to at least get 40% of people in Africa fully vaccinated by the end of this year.

FOLKENFLIK: That seems like a tough lift.

HASSAN: So we don't think it's impossible. We believe that there are many countries sitting with stockpiles of vaccines. We believe that vaccines could be diverted. We believe that if there is a truly genuine, equitable response to this pandemic, then you will prioritize getting first shots to people in Africa before you prioritize getting third or fourth shots to people in the global north.

FOLKENFLIK: We've been hearing from Fatima Hassan, the founder of the Health Justice Initiative in South Africa. Fatima Hassan, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us.

HASSAN: Thank you for having me on the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.