Immunization is a global health and development success story, saving millions of lives every year; it is a key component of primary healthcare and an indisputable human right. Vaccines reduce risks of getting a disease by working with our body’s natural defences to build protection. Within days of COVID-19 being declared an international public health emergency, multiple groups of scientists began working on a vaccine. But instead of working together to craft and implement a global strategy, a growing number of countries are taking a “my nation first” approach to developing and distributing potential vaccines or other pharmaceutical treatments. This “vaccine nationalism” is not only morally reprehensible, it is the wrong way to reduce transmission globally. And global transmission matters, if countries with a large number of cases lag in obtaining the vaccine and other medicines, the disease will continue to disrupt global supply chains and economies around the world. In the midst of this global pandemic, we must leverage our global governance bodies to allocate, distribute, and verify the delivery of the COVID - 19 vaccine. We need science — not politics — to inform the global strategy.
The nationalistic approach of some governments may hinder other countries’ access to COVID-19 vaccines and this hindrance could cost the global economy up to $1.2 trillion a year in gross domestic product (GDP) as per a study by RAND Europe. With “vaccine nationalism” increasingly becoming a concern, several international organisations (including the World Health Organization) have put their diplomatic weight behind the COVID - 19 Global Access (COVAX) initiative. This encourages countries to sign up to a deal that is designed to make 2 billion doses of vaccines available by the end of 2021.
Because no one knows which vaccine will be effective, some wealthy countries are hedging their bets by buying up vast quantities of multiple vaccines, before scientists have completed clinical trials and proven the vaccines to be safe or effective. In total, wealthy countries have already signed deals to secure 3.7 billion doses from western drug-makers, according to a recent report. To date, the United Kingdom has been the worst offender, with a recent estimate showing it has pre-ordered enough vaccines for five doses per person. The government has also announced plans to sign additional agreements with manufacturers to lock in even more supplies. By refusing to join COVAX, the US has intentionally excluded itself from a raft of promising vaccines that are still under development. That is a particularly risky strategy, especially if the current US vaccine candidates are shown to be less effective than others.
According to economist Marco Hafner, if too many countries follow a ‘vaccine nationalism’ approach regarding the development, production, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, it could seriously hurt global equitable access for those most at risk. The present race to hoard COVID-19 vaccines harks back to a similar situation that happened in 2009 during the H1N1 flu pandemic. Australia, the first country to come up with a vaccine, blocked exports while some of the wealthiest countries entered into pre-purchase agreements with several pharmaceutical companies. The US alone obtained the right to buy 600,000 doses. It was only when the H1N1 pandemic began to recede that developed countries offered to donate vaccine doses to the less developed countries. However, it must be noted that H1N1 was a milder disease and its impact was far lesser than COVID-19. Experts in epidemiology, virology, and the social sciences — not politicians — should take the lead in devising and implementing science-based strategies to reduce the risks that Covid-19 poses to the most vulnerable across the globe and to reduce transmission of this novel virus.
To avoid ineffective nationalistic responses, a centralized, trusted governance system is needed to ensure the appropriate flow of capital, information, and supplies. As per Seth Berkley, chief executive of the GAVI alliance, if we were to try to vaccinate the entire USA and the entire EU, for example, with two doses of vaccine – then we’d get to about 1.7 billion doses. And if that is the number of doses that’s available, there’s not a lot left for others. If a handful, or even 30 or 40 countries have vaccines, but more than 150 others don’t, then the pandemic will rage there, thus putting countries with fewer resources and bargaining power at a disadvantage.
What is needed is an Advanced Market Commitment model where the donors make a commitment to subsidize the purchase of a yet-to-be-developed vaccine for developing countries, providing vaccine manufacturers with an incentive to invest in what’s needed to bring a vaccine to the developing world market. Beyond financing, a global coordinated effort to estimate and account for the available global workforce of vaccinators, operationalized mass vaccination programs, implementation plans for equitably allocating vaccines on a prioritized basis, and verification of the delivery of vaccines is much needed.
All countries have to remember that it is the virus and not each other, that is their foe. A nationalistic stance towards the pandemic will prolong this global health and economic crisis. A vaccine must be allocated on the basis of the best evidence of what will stop transmission and protect the most vulnerable groups — no matter in which nation they reside. Nationalism and political gains should be left at bay this one time and a rationalized and humanized way should be chosen for the betterment of mankind.
*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.