Health experts and analysts argue that the massive scale of vaccination is the most effective way to save people and the economy around the globe. Meanwhile, one can see a timid response of the global institutions in this regard. The neglect of multilateralism since the very inception of this crisis exacerbated the efforts of different countries, particularly in the developing and underdeveloped regions. The US withdrawal from World Health Organization (WHO) under the Trump Administration greatly hampered the global process in the early days of COVID-19. However, the US has rejoined WHO under the Biden Administration, but it has already been delayed and slowed down the global engagement. As a result, we have witnessed hectic vaccine diplomacy over the past year, where bilateral frameworks have played a pivotal role. It may be mentioned that COVAX was launched by WHO, EU and France in 2020 to deal with the global accessibility of COVID-19 vaccines. Coordinated by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the WHO, COVAX aims to ensure vaccines are shared fairly among all nations, rich and poor. However, the worrying issue is that the current level of access to vaccines for the developing and least developed nations is extremely low compared to the developed and rich countries. Against this backdrop, the vaccine for all becomes a critical global need to overcome the biggest humanitarian crisis in a century. Bangladesh has a unique contribution to advance the goal of vaccine for all, for that matter, facilitating the availability and accessibility of COVID-19 vaccines to every corner of the world.
With a motto of ‘vaccine for all’, the Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, warned the world during her speech for the 31st Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)in September 2020. Bangladesh placed a three-point proposal in the special UNGA session to deal with the challenge of COVID-19: ensuring universal and equitable access to quality Covid-19 vaccine, transferring technology to developing countries to manufacture it locally, and providing them with financial assistance to face challenges in wake of the pandemic. She vehemently asserted that the COVID vaccine is for the global public good. In her words, “It is imperative to treat the vaccine as a ‘global public good’.” In this context, the World Health Organization (WHO) initiative of Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) and Covax facility can play a vital role in this regard. Highlighting the global responsibility of achieving the 2030 Development agenda of the fundamental role of Universal Health Coverage for achieving the SDGs guided by the principle of equity, Bangladesh underscored the need for universal access to vaccines. She argued, “In the same spirit, when it comes to access to vaccines, no one should be left behind … This would help us to defeat the pandemic, save lives and accelerate our economic recovery.”
Bangladesh Prime Minister called upon the developed countries to commit to technology transfer for the local manufacturing of vaccines in developing countries, using IP rights waiver under TRIPS Agreement. Sheikh Hasina reminded the international community that the fates of people across the globe were intertwined amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as she called on world leaders to ensure that any proven vaccine is made accessible to all at the same time. She also highlighted the need for multilateralism and reiterated Bangladesh’s ‘unflinching commitment’ to multilateralism as embodied in the UN Charter. She clearly spelled out, “The pandemic has indeed aggravated existing global challenges. It has also reinforced the indispensability of multilateralism.”She emphasized, “The UN, International Financial Institutions (IFIs), civil society alongside the national governments must do their share and actively cooperate with each other to combat Covid-19.” The crux of multilateralism on the COVID-19 global pandemic is pumping necessary financial assistance to the developing countries.
Bangladesh also pointed out that the world should recognize the vaccine manufacturing capacities of developing countries like Bangladesh. She floated the idea that Bangladesh’s pharmaceutical industry has the capacity to mass-produce a vaccine if given the “technical know-how and patents.”Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asserted that Bangladesh is ready to produce Covid-19 vaccines. It is critical to remember that Bangladesh did forecast the current scenarios of vaccine crisis and politics long ago. The situation gets further worse when the US, the UK, and the European Union have all blocked the move of nearly 100 developing countries who petitioned the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily waive intellectual property protections on vaccines during the pandemic so that they could manufacture generic vaccines domestically. Besides, developing countries, including Bangladesh, approached vaccine producing companies such as Oxford-AstraZeneca to share technical know-how and patents, which has not seen any positive responses. Serum Institute of India, a co-manufacturer of Oxford-AstraZeneca also appealed to the US President Joe Biden to consider exporting raw materials for producing COVID-19 vaccines. Besides, a local company in Bangladesh, Globe Biotech Ltd, also joined the global COVID-19 vaccine race with the announcement of its vaccine named Bongavax that started clinical trials.
The Bangladesh Prime Minister reiterated her vision for the vaccine for all at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference virtually held on 20 April 2021. She clearly uttered that COVID-19 vaccines should be declared as global public goods. She asserted, “Countries producing the vaccines should help others produce the vaccines with a view to attaining universal vaccine coverage.”All nations and international organizations must work together to meet the medical requirements of this pandemic. WHO, GAVI and other relevant organizations must uphold the rights of member states and ensure equity and justice. The prime minister called the COVID-19 pandemic possibly the “greatest global challenge” and emphasized it had brought the world to a crossroad of human history. As cautioned by the Bangladesh Prime Minister in September 2020, the world witnesses a horrific race for vaccines leaving behind billions of marginalized people in the world.
The neglect of the causes of the survival of a great number of humanity by relying on politics, parochial national interests, and diplomatic considerations, the developed world will jeopardize the existence of global society. The so-called diplomacy of ‘zero-sum’ gains has brought about a devastating impact in the age of new normal. One can see alarming statistics of current scenarios in the world regarding vaccine procurement. Out of total worldwide confirmed purchases of Covid-19 vaccines, high-income country confirmed dose total 4.6 billion, upper-middle-income country totals 1.3 billion, lower-middle-income country total 608 million, low-income country total 670 million and COVAX total 1.12 billion. Besides, vaccine diplomacy has turned into a race for intensifying bilateral frameworks that contributes to more competition and rivalry in the world. Countries from Africa to Latin America have been witnessing this trend. Rivalries between the vaccine manufacturing countries such as the US vs China, Russia vs the US, India vs China, EU vs Russia and China are on display in the global arena.
In conclusion, Bangladesh’s 3-point proposal in fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic through equitable access to vaccines must be the basis of any global or regional initiatives. It is the formula for saving humanity from the greatest disaster on earth. It is an inescapable option for the world to immediately declare COVID-19 vaccine as a public good that the Bangladesh Prime Minister urged to the world in the UNGA in 2020. Intellectual property rights mechanisms be immediately relaxed for sharing technology with Pharmaceutical companies in countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, India and Indonesia to produce vaccines for the world. Fair and equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccines must be based on the slogan of ‘vaccine for all’ and no time lost or delayed to save the humanity and economy.