COVID-19: What will it take to protect the Americas?

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By Carissa Etienne, Director of the Pan American Health Organization, PAHO.

Ten months after the first vaccine for COVID-19 was authorized for use by the WHO, most
people in the Americas remain at risk.

We must face the daunting reality that the overreliance on imported health products –
including lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines – has left this region vulnerable. We cannot wait for the next health emergency to act, as ending this dependency will require long-term planning, investment and, above all, collaboration.

Despite the pervasive inequality within and across countries, our region has achieved high
coverage of routine childhood vaccines, which have saved lives and secured a chance of a
better future for several generations. The Americas was the first region in the world to
eliminate rubella, to eradicate smallpox and to be declared polio-free.

Yet, during the worst pandemic in a century, we are struggling to secure enough vaccines to protect our people and though 41% of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean has been immunized, coverage remains very low in the poorest areas of our region. Why has access to COVID-19 vaccine been so different?

Simply put, there are not enough vaccines available, and the ones that are, have not been
equitably distributed. Nations with more resources, or with established manufacturing capacity, secured the lion’s share of vaccines for their people, while the rest of the world must wait. This delay cost countless lives around the world, but especially in economically stratified regions like ours.

We have no option but to close this gap. Vaccine donations remain critical, but we need to look elsewhere for long-term solutions.

That is why the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is championing an ambitious new program to expand vaccine manufacturing capacity in Latin America and the Caribbean, where vaccine availability has been very uneven. It builds on the proven expertise of our institutions and the strengths of our scientific community.

As a first step, a private company in Argentina and a public institute in Brazil were selected as hubs to develop and produce vaccines using cutting-edge mRNA technology.

The mRNA initiative is just one part of a broader platform that aims to serve the needs of the entire region, by linking capacity across countries to produce different components of the pharmaceutical supply chain. No single nation has the means to transform the current
landscape on their own. We must align around a shared plan and coordinated investments to make the Americas more self-sufficient.

It is not enough to act during this emergency. Expanding manufacturing and bringing vaccines closer to where they are needed require lasting commitment from governments across our region, and the active engagement of global funding partners.

It also requires that the few companies that hold the required technical knowledge and patents are prepared to share these to help diversify global production of vaccines and medicines.

Failure to do so, will keep the world struggling with insufficient output for months and,
possibly, years to come.

The upcoming G20 summit is a crucial opportunity to embrace this vision and secure it with
strong financial and technical commitments.

We can only succeed if countries in the Americas work together to locally produce the tools
that can get us out of this pandemic and leave us better prepared for the next.

COVID-19 has shown that there is no pathway for recovery while our neighbors continue at risk.

Science and innovation that remains out of reach will not protect us. Solidarity and self-reliance in vaccine production will.

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