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Five Questions With…José Manuel Barroso

6 April 2021

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We spoke to José Manuel Barroso, Board Chair of Gavi and former President of the European Commission, to find out why COVAX is so essential, why protecting health workers is vital to mitigate the public health and economic impact of the pandemic, and how we can maintain current levels of global collaboration to accelerate development across the world. 

1. As the new Board Chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, why do you think COVAX is so essential?

 Quite simply there is no way out of this crisis without global access to vaccines. To date, we’ve seen the wealthiest countries racing to buy up the entire global supply of vaccines, just as they have in previous pandemics. It’s natural that these governments want to protect their own citizens but vaccine nationalism will only prolong this crisis. Ensuring that people in all countries have rapid and equitable access to vaccines is not only morally just, it is the fastest way to ending this crisis and putting our economies on the road to recovery. That is why, learning from the past, under the leadership of Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the World Health Organization, we need COVAX. Our goal was to build a powerful global collaboration that could enter the vaccine marketplace on behalf of citizens everywhere, but particularly the poorest.

In the space of a few months we gathered the support of 190 economies, representing 90% of the global populations. Next came negotiations with manufacturers: to date we have secured access to over 2 billion doses of the COVID vaccine for people in lower-income countries, who would otherwise have little or no access. For these people, COVAX is quite literally a lifeline. The emergence of highly transmissible variants that are more resilient to vaccines now makes the success of COVAX even more important. No one is safe until everyone is safe.

2. In your view, why is protecting health care workers vital to mitigate the public health and economic impact of the pandemic?

Healthcare workers are clearly the ones on the frontline of fighting this pandemic. They have made enormous sacrifices; some have lost their lives and collectively we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. It’s absolutely critical that, along with the most vulnerable, we now make sure our healthcare workers are among the first vaccinated. They continue to be most at risk when it comes to being exposed to the virus and, of course, they come into daily contact with the sickest and most vulnerable people.

The best economic policy today is vaccine policy, it is the way for economies to start working again. The IMF estimates that faster global access to COVID-19 vaccines will raise global income by US$ 9 trillion over 2020-25. We aim to distribute 1.8 billion doses to lower-income countries which is more than enough to protect all high-risk individuals, including frontline health and social care workers and vulnerable groups, such as older people and those with underlying health conditions. This is in addition to other efforts we are undertaking, such as encouraging higher-income countries with vaccine surpluses to share doses and enabling lower-income economies to procure more vaccines through cost-sharing supported by multilateral development banks. Furthermore, Gavi has already made a first tranche of US$ 200 million available to support countries in their response to the pandemic, to provide PPE and training to health care workers, to fund vital surveillance and diagnostic tests.

Looking further ahead, even in the wealthiest countries this pandemic has placed an enormous strain on health systems and in low- and middle-income countries the impact has been devastating. We must make restoring these health systems and supporting healthcare workers a global priority underpinning economic recovery; a healthy population underpins a healthy economy.

3. What more needs to be done by global, national and local leaders to accelerate the equitable rollout of vaccines in every country?

Vaccines offer a beacon of hope as we seek to end this crisis but we cannot vaccinate the world without strong leadership at every level.

To achieve our ambition of ending the acute phase of the pandemic, we need 2 billion dollars in additional funds for COVAX. Equally critical is maintaining government and industry’s support for supply and speed of access. When governments pursue bilateral deals with manufacturers, it not only places additional constraints on what are already limited global supplies, but it contributes to a bidding war that could put these vaccines further out of reach of many of the people that need to be protected the most.

At a national and local level, at Gavi we are supporting countries with the huge logistical, regulatory, technical and personnel challenges – such as training on administering the doses. It’s crucial that national and local leaders reach out to the most vulnerable and high-risk groups. We know populations that are socially marginalised tend to have poorer access to interventions, and poorer health outcomes. The vaccine rollout needs to proactively target these people, working alongside civil society groups to understand and mitigate their concerns.

4. From your perspective, what can the global health community do to advocate for #VaccinEquity?

Health workers have seen more clearly than anyone the devastating impact of this disease and no one is better placed to lead a call for action. I urge you all to make your voices heard and call for #VaccinEquity. It’s about demanding leaders across the world to do the right thing by supporting global access for vaccines and, at the same time, act in everyone’s best interests by hastening the end of this crisis. Right now, we are urgently calling on countries with excess supply to donate doses through the COVAX Facility so we can make sure that these doses go where they are needed most and will have the highest impact. This includes making sure the entire global population of health workers is vaccinated. Speed is of the essence here; we must keep up the pressure on governments to show solidarity and help us vaccinate the world.

5. COVID-19 has made clear that working together saves lives. How can we maintain global collaboration to overcome global development challenges and ensure no country is left behind?

This past year, we’ve seen the best of humanity engaged in a collaborative fight against this virus from our brilliant scientists to brave health care workers to those people engaged in the immense logistical challenge of the largest and most rapid vaccine roll out in history. COVAX itself has been made possible by an extraordinary global alliance. World leaders stepped up and agreed that no one should be left behind.

We must keep this collaboration going because there are many more challenges ahead and no country is an island now. The rapid spread of the virus reminds us how much smaller our world has become in these last few centuries, with modern transportation and its mass use condensing what were once great distances – the world is a village! Ultimately, working together is the only way we can tackle global challenges – from climate change to food security. We also need to restore health systems and get immunisation levels back up to where they were pre-pandemic or face a continued risk of outbreaks of other diseases, and ones that are vaccine preventable, such as measles, polio and diphtheria. If we help poorer, less stable countries become healthier, more prosperous and more secure, then we are building a healthier, more prosperous and more secure planet for everyone.

This post was written by:

José Manuel Barroso - Board Chair, Gavi

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