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Thunberg calls vaccine inequity a 'moral test'

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg joined WHO in calling on rich nations to stop hoarding vaccines and start accelerating the spread of shots worldwide.

Greta Thunberg at a U.S. climate rally in Denver in October 2019
Greta Thunberg at a U.S. climate rally in Denver in October 2019 (AN/Anthony Quintano)

GENEVA (AN) — Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg joined the World Health Organization on Monday in calling on rich nations to stop hoarding vaccine stockpiles and start accelerating the spread of shots among those most in need worldwide.

The United Nations health agency in Geneva invited the 18-year-old to join a regular media briefing. Thunberg, whose August 2018 protests in front of Swedish parliament sparked the Fridays for Future “school strike for climate” movement, said by videoconference that leaders must do more to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We can no longer separate the health crisis from the ecological crisis, and we cannot separate the ecological crisis from the climate crisis," she said. "And the international community, governments and vaccine developers must step up their game and address the tragedy that is vaccine inequity."

Her charitable foundation also donated 100,000 euros (US$120,000) to the WHO Foundation in support of the COVAX Facility's purchase of coronavirus vaccines.

Earlier this month, Thunberg said she will skip the United Nations climate conference planned for Glasgow, Scotland in November because the unequal distribution of coronavirus vaccines makes it harder for delegates from less-wealthy nations to attend.

She said inequality and climate injustice are intertwined, and she would participate in the conference only if "everyone can take part on the same terms."

COVAX, co-led by WHO, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, said it expects to deliver at least 2 billion doses of vaccines in 2021. As of early April, however, it had delivered just 38 million doses in 100 nations from drugmakers AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech and Serum Institute of India.

The number of people with confirmed infections exceeded 141 million — including almost 32 million cases in the United States alone — with 3 million deaths and 81 million recoveries worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University and Google data trackers.

A 'moral test'

COVAX aims to accelerate the development and production of COVID-19 vaccines and to guarantee all nations have fair and equitable access, yet wealthy nations have stockpiled the bulk of the world's supplies.

Thunberg noted the unprecedented speed with which COVID-19 vaccines were developed and distributed since WHO declared a pandemic existed on March 11, 2020, but also the inequity of vaccines delivered among 25% of people in high-income nations versus 0.20% of people in lower- and middle-income nations.

"We have the tools we need to correct this great imbalance that exists around the world today in the fight against COVID-19. Just as with the climate crisis, those who are most vulnerable need to be prioritized. And global problems require global solutions," said Thunberg.

"It is completely unethical that high-income countries are now vaccinating young and healthy people if that happens at the expense of people in risk groups and on the frontlines in low- and middle-income countries," she said. "And this is a moral test. We talked today about showing solidarity and yet vaccine nationalism — it's what's running the vaccine distribution."

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said leaders and citizens should "follow Greta’s example and do what they can, in support of COVAX, to protect the world’s most vulnerable people from this pandemic.”

He said new COVID-19 infections rose for an eighth straight week and deaths rose for a fifth straight week worldwide, while infections among people aged 25 to 59 are “increasing at an alarming rate, possibly as a result of highly contagious variants and increased social mixing among younger adults.”