Paulo M. Buss, Claudia Hoirisch e Santiago Alcázar (Oswaldo Cruz Foundation Center for Global Health and Health Diplomacy)
Many affluent countries, with the necessary technological capabilities and expertise, entered into the production of Covid-19 vaccines or sought the biopharmaceutical companies to block them for themselves through anticipated buying. It is estimated that as early December 2020, 3.8 billion vaccine doses had been guaranteed to these countries by several producers. If one compares that figure with the 3.2 billion doses, that include the 700 million doses from the Covax facility, for the rest of the world one cannot help being struck by the immensity of the inequity. The USA and the UK, for example, each bought anticipatedly over five vaccine doses per capita, with more doses being contracted with the companies. According to Oxfam, USA, UK, the EU, Japan and other well-heeled countries, that represent 13% of the world population, reserved for themselves more than half of all Covid-19 vaccines then available. At the same time, Latin-American countries had only managed to secure immunization for a small percentage of their population. Countries in Africa, Western Pacific and Southeast Asia are living similar situations.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us the striking global dependence of vaccines and their inputs, as for example the active pharmaceutical ingredient (API), on the technological capabilities installed in BRICS countries.
Half of all 20 Covid-19 vaccines was researched, developed and produced in the BRICS. China is responsible for six. India and Russia for two, each. China is now a major player in innovative vaccines for several contagious diseases. India houses world biggest biopharmaceutical companies, with enormous capacities for the production of bioproducts for immunization. Russia has massive capabilities in medicine and in the biological sciences. South Africa has an outstanding performance in public health programs and has important continental leadership. Brazil has two internationally recognized public biopharmaceutical institutes, Biomanguinhos/Fiocruz and Butantan, with large-scale production capacities and a bulky market that includes Mercosul and all Latin America.
When the pandemic was declared these countries were perfectly aware of their respective competences and of the opportunities to be fetched. Insight, articulation, coordination, cooperation and political savvy among the BRICS countries could have made possible large-scale production and distribution, with financial support from their own New Development Bank (NDB).
The Moscow Declaration, adopted at the 12th BRICS Summit, in November 2020, recognized the role of extensive immunization against Covid-19 in preventing, containing and stopping transmission. In it, it stated that the BRICS countries will work to ensure that, when available, Covid-19 vaccines will be disseminated in a fair, equitable and affordable basis and will support cooperative approaches in that regard.
Besides the fact that there aren’t enough vaccines to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, nor to respond to the new variants of the coronavirus, we must not forget that other pandemics may be in the making, perhaps more severe than the one that is currently underway. This stresses the crucial importance of coordination and cooperation on vaccine research and development within BRICS countries, highlighting the need to make operational the BRICS Vaccine Research and Development Centre, as approved at the 10th BRICS Summit, held in Johannesburg in 2018. It is important to recall that the intention of the leaders, in an insightful political decision, was to probe for common solutions for the possibility of outbreaks that could turn pandemic in the near future.
When everything is put together and taking into account that their summoned populations amount to almost 42% of the world´s, it is evident that BRICS can play a major role in reducing global health inequities with respect to a fairer distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.
In a truly health diplomacy initiative, the BRICS, under the chairmanship of India since January this year, should agree to launch, with the outmost urgency, a series of summits and ministerial meetings – foreign affairs, health and science and technology – to address equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines among their own population as well as to the world at large in a true display of humanity and solidarity. It is equally important that they invest decidedly in the WHO Covax Facility, the only democratically vaccine distribution mechanism now in place. Many more mechanisms could be put in place, as for example, redirecting exportation of vaccines, API or other health supplies to the Covax Facility and to developing countries more in need; specific national policies in their own countries with a view to fairer distribution; and building up of a common front in multilateral fora as the United Nations and the World Health Organizations.
It must be emphasized that the BRICS can have a heavyweight role in carrying out a health diplomacy agenda at the UN General Assembly, the ECOSOC, the UN Human Rights Council, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the G-20 and any other relevant bodies.
As in the HIV/AIDS and Ebola epidemics, that led the Security Council to focus on health issues, it of the outmost importance that the SC – where China and Russia, Permanent members are now joined by India since January for a tenure of two years, as a non-permanent member – should take every opportunity to bring forward the notion that threat to health compromises global stability and security, as the Covid-19 pandemic is making very clear.
The BRICS leaders should transcend the rhetoric and the business as usual approach, taking over the historic role assigned to them by the promotion of solidarity and global equity in the fight against Covid-19. It is high time to put health diplomacy at the top of BRICS priorities.