Interviews

"There has been a selfish attitude regarding global access to vaccines"

 Albert BarberÓ

Albert BarberÓ, director of the eHealth Center, on the management and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines: "before we start thinking about vaccinating children, we mustn't forget that there are many countries that are completely unprotected". Photo: UOC

05/07/2021
Jes˙s MÚndez
Albert BarberÓ, director of the eHealth Center

 

The pandemic we are going through poses a whole host of challenges combining aspects of health, politics and the economy, among others. And one of these huge challenges is universal access to vaccines. The UOC, through its Office of the Vice President for Globalization and Cooperation and the eHealth Center, is holding a series of five talks to examine some of the keys to a process that is complex yet essential.

The talks, which are available to watch on the UOC's YouTube channel, feature experts in multiple fields. They address matters such as the importance of public health, the role of patents and communication, geopolitical conflicts and the concept of planetary health. They are all moderated by Albert BarberÓ, the director of the eHealth Center. We spoke to him about several of these matters.

Although the series is mainly about access to vaccines, there are actually many matters linked and related to this problem. What are the main goals of these talks?

I think the pandemic has highlighted some aspects that were already on the table but we hadn't finished addressing. Specifically, global access to vaccines raises, among others, issues about science, information, intellectual property, distribution and geopolitical approaches. We thought it would be interesting to discuss a few of these aspects with experts from both inside and outside the University, to address the knowledge we have and even the knowledge we don't yet have, and to be aware of it.

The series is jointly organized by the UOC's Office of the Vice President for Globalization and Cooperation and the eHealth Center. What role can or should organizations such as universities have in relation to these matters?

In my opinion, the role of universities should not be restricted to the two traditional areas of teaching and research: they are also agents of social transformation. They must not stay locked in their ivory towers but must instead become involved with the environment, and they must do this without paternalistic attitudes. In this rapidly changing world, universities must take the role of helping people develop a critical opinion based on reflection, even if it's not always able to provide solutions directly.

The development of vaccines has been a success, but its distribution has clearly revealed the existence of a two-tier world: countries that are very advanced in their vaccination programmes are considering vaccinating children and teenagers, who are hardly at risk from the disease, whereas many others have barely been able to vaccinate the most vulnerable or even healthcare workers. How did we get here? Could this have been avoided?

The problem is one of "health nationalism", a selfish "me first" attitude. And this applies not just to vaccines but to all related health products. Although this emotional reaction is understandable to a point, in the end it confirms that international organizations have lacked the commitment to address something that is a global problem. It would be naive to think that there aren't going to be several tiers, but there are many things that could have been done better. And before we start thinking about vaccinating children, we shouldn't forget that many countries are completely unprotected.

This is an important issue that's specifically dealt with in the series when talking about patents. To what extent can simply suspending them improve the situation? Can companies also be forced to transfer their knowledge, as demanded by many voices and organizations?

Yes, maybe, but the short-term increase in production would probably be fairly small. Another relevant question is what we should do in the long term, an issue that is being discussed by many people. In situations such as this, the matter of production and price negotiation should be reorganized and reinforced. Alternative mechanisms for the promotion of innovation other than patents, such as incentives, could also be used. Health is an essential matter that should not be governed by the same laws as the market. And I agree with economist Mariana Mazzucato's theories to a great extent: governments also invest and take risks, and they must remain active players until the final transfer, not just at the research stage.

Another aspect addressed in the series is that of communication, which has been particularly difficult at a time of constant uncertainty. What is your overall assessment of this in the almost eighteen months of pandemic?

I think it's been gradually improving, but at the beginning we failed to properly convey how science works and evolves. Perhaps we scientists and academics have a tendency to be too paternalistic. But it wasn't properly done in the political sphere either, where we have seen numerous displays of excessive testosterone and a failure to admit that some aspects were unknown. On the other hand, there will always be people who believe alternative or conspiracy theories, but I am convinced that, when communication is honest, people accept uncertainty well. And that this is preferable to false confidence which, in addition, is often riddled with contradictions, something that is noticeable.

The series also includes a talk on environmental impact. The pandemic has once again put on the table the concept of One Health (the idea of a single human, animal and environmental health). To what extent did this impact affect the emergence of the pandemic, and to what extent was it inevitable in such a globalized and interconnected world?

It's true that zoonotic diseases such as this are hard to avoid in today's world. But it's also true that it's less likely to happen if we look after the environment. In any case, the concept of planetary health goes well beyond this. It relates to the fact that we have significantly reduced our vision of human health. Our health is not determined solely by genes or habits: although these are obviously important, the environment also affects us in many ways if we don't look after it.

Many decisions or approaches have given rise to ethical debates over these eighteen months. Were our laws ready to deal with a situation such as this? Are they ready now?

Beyond specific laws, I think it's important that we reach consensus as a society. For example, there was a lot of discussion about how data was shared by contact tracing apps. Good data leads to better decisions, but we must feel confident about the information we provide. And that probably entails concluding a social pact and pass laws based on it, even if it's not easy.

If you had to choose, what would be the best and worst aspects of the response to the pandemic?

As to the best, I'd mention two things. First, the very fast development of effective vaccines, partly thanks to the previous research already in existence. And secondly, the awareness we've had of the importance of open science and sharing data, which is actually linked to an extent.

As to the worst part, I think it's the failure to honestly convey uncertainty on many occasions. And, of course, the extreme health nationalism we've seen.

Finally, thinking about very likely future pandemics: Have we learned anything from this one? Will we be better prepared?

I'd like to be optimistic and say yes. The science and innovation system will be ready, and we have learned in many areas. We have made advances in many fields, such as that of open science, and regarding awareness of important matters such as productive capacity, social collaboration and sound health systems. Many pieces of the puzzle have become more important and been reconsidered, although they must now be assembled at a global level.

I like to emphasize the idea that this pandemic is in fact a syndemic, as proposed by The Lancet editor-in-chief Richard Horton. This involves the idea that many factors in addition to the virus play a role in the pandemic. If we don't transform the global health system, the problems will continue. At the UOC's eHealth Center we believe that technology provides an opportunity to help in this transformation process.

UOC R&I

The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) is helping overcome pressing challenges faced by global societies in the 21st century, by studying interactions between technology and human & social sciences with a specific focus on the network society, e-learning and e-health. Over 500 researchers and 51 research groups work among the University's seven faculties and two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).

The United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and open knowledge serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu. #UOC25years