Mount Everest base camp in Nepal is located at an elevation of 17,598 feet. It’s the perfect place to pause, build up some red blood cells, and contemplate whether you really want to climb a corpse-littered mountain with an upper third that’s located in the “death zone.” If that’s not enough stress, there’s also this news reported by the BBC: A COVID-19 outbreak has been raging through the hundreds of climbers gathered at the base of the mountain, with 17 people already evacuated to hospitals in Kathmandu.
The outbreak comes as Nepal mirrors neighboring India by having its worst spike of the entire pandemic. At just over 12,000 cases per million people, the rate of cases in Nepal is barely an eighth that of the United States, but the small Asian nation (which has a total population just over that of Texas) is one of several that seemed to have handled the pandemic well to this point, only to be caught up in the wave of new cases centered in India. Others—like Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos—had been models of how the pandemic could be controlled until the last few weeks, which have carried all of them to new record levels of infection. Pakistan has also seen a surge in cases, though not as severe as in its Indian neighbor. Densely populated Bangladesh also seemed to be heading toward heartbreaking levels of infection and death, but cases there have fallen sharply in the last week as the country has gone into an extended nationwide lockdown.
In India the catastrophe continues to expand. On Wednesday, previous records were broken again as over 406,000 cases were reported along with over 3,800 deaths. Neither number is likely to represent the final tally for the day, but even when the numbers are official, complaints continue that the official numbers are drastically undercounting the real losses.
Today the U.S. moved to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines. This may not help immediately, but it will definitely help in the longer term, and not just in India.
U.S. daily rate of new Vaccinations continues to decline
In the United States, the number of vaccinations given each day continues to trend downward and more states and counties are reporting surplus vaccines and a lack of demand. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports just under 57% of the adult population has been vaccinated, with Civiqs indicating another 14% of American adults still intending to seek the vaccine.
The percentage of those vaccinated in the U.S. is likely a major factor in why the nation has not seen a new spike in cases despite widely relaxed social distancing guidelines. However, the rate of vaccination is not enough to cause the kind of steep decline in cases seen in nations like Israel. Over the last three days, Israel has averaged 68 cases a day—down from a peak of over 10,000 in January—after reaching a vaccination rate that includes 80% of all adults.
CVS, Walmart, and Sam’s Club all providing walk-in vaccinations
For those still looking for a vaccination, CVS, Walmart, and Sam’s Club all announced on Wednesday that they would now provide walk-in vaccinations with no appointment necessary. Sam’s Club also indicates that it’s not necessary to be a member to visit one of the in-store pharmacies for the vaccine.
With broad availability of vaccine and most clinics and pharmacies now offering vaccination, it’s still possible that remaining adults who are seeking the vaccine could be vaccinated by the end of May, bringing the percentage of the adult population vaccinated to over 70%—though this will be just under 60% of the total population. However, the outside expert panel for the FDA is expected to meet on either Thursday or Friday to vote on whether to update the emergency use authorization (EUA) from Pfizer to include people as young as 12 years old. If that change to the EUA is approved, vaccination for high school and middle school students should be available immediately.
U.S. moves to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines
On Wednesday afternoon, Ambassador Katherine Tai announced that the U.S. would seek to waive patents and other forms of intellectual property protection for COVID-19 vaccines.
“The Administration strongly believes in intellectual property protection,” said Tai, “but in the service of ending this pandemic, supports waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”
Tai, who serves as the U.S. Trade Representative to the World Trade Organization, indicated that the United States will negotiate with the WTO with the goal of making those waivers happen as quickly as possible. The ambassador restated the White House’s goal of getting as many people vaccinated as possible, and said that the U.S. would also work to make sure that sufficient raw materials were available to support manufacture of the vaccines.
Though the immediate need in India—where the health system has been crushed under the weight of so many COVID-19 patients—is for oxygen, ventilators, personal protective equipment, and medical personnel, freeing these vaccines from patent protection has been a goal for both health experts and activists. India is already one of the world’s largest manufacturers of pharmaceuticals, and a removal of protections around the vaccines should allow more factories there and elsewhere to turn their attention to meeting a rising global demand.
The spike in cases across Asia outside of India shows how quickly this disease can spread, even in areas that have suppressed previous outbreaks and were thought to be prepared. Globally only about 2% of the population has tested positive for COVID-19, and an even smaller percentage has been vaccinated. Though it’s tempting to believe that the pandemic has done its worst and is on its way out, COVID-19 still has billions of potential victims—all of whom would be well served by an effective global campaign of vaccine administration.