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Tackle inequality to ensure economic recovery, UNAIDS tells WEF

by Haruna Gimba

By Zayamu Hassan

The United Nations Joint Action on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), has warned that economic recovery and health security plans that do not tackle inequality face catastrophic failure.

The Executive Director of UNAIDS, Winnie Byanyima stated this ahead of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Ms Byanyima, therefore, called on leaders to replace intellectual property rules which restrict access to life-saving medicines for HIV, COVID-19 and other pandemics for people in the Global South with ones that require technology sharing.

She also called for the replacement of debt repayment rules which force low- and middle-income countries to slash spending on education and health, hampering vital HIV prevention and treatment programmes, with ones that expand investments in times of crisis.  

In a statement obtained by Health Reporters, she said during the 2020, women were 1.4 times more likely to drop out of the labour force.

“Every week, 4,200 adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa acquire HIV. A year and half since the first doses of a COVID vaccine was delivered, 75 per cent of people in high income countries are fully vaccinated, but under 13 per cent of people in lower income countries are.   

“When COVID-19 hit, Africans were told to stand at the back of the queue while rich countries protected themselves with PPE, vaccines and treatment, told that pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t share their technologies because the vaccine was too ‘complicated’ for us to make,” Ms Byanyima said.   

The UNAIDS executive director comments followed a recent visit to Afrigen, a South African company, where scientists have developed a new COVID-19 vaccine using available information to create a vaccine similar to the Moderna vaccine which they plan to distribute at an affordable price across the continent.

“I saw state of the art facilities, young scientists and passionate leaders building not just vaccines for COVID but also other diseases, other treatments to make Africa prepared so that we never again have to stand at the back of the queue,” she added.

Yet in spite of the huge profits made, western pharmaceutical companies continue to refuse to share their recipes and technologies for public good.

In 2021, Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna were estimated to have made pre-tax profits of $34 billion.   

UNAIDS is warning that this pattern of exclusion looks set to be repeated in access to new “long acting” HIV medicines coming on stream.

Ms Byanyima warned that exclusionary policies hurt everyone, “When people in low- and middle- income countries are excluded from life-saving health technologies for HIV, COVID-19 or other pandemics, let’s be clear that this also causes deaths in rich countries, perpetuates pandemics, and undermines the global economy.”  

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