National Comment Comment

Ending vaccine inequality is a worldwide priority

By over-ordering, the developed world's selfishness has left poorer countries helpless and susceptible

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Image Credit: Lisa Ferdinando, U.S. Secretary of Defense

At one point in time, around May 2020, it seemed to me that the developing world was to remain somewhat unscathed by the coronavirus pandemic. While not always the case, poorer countries frequently have young populations, hot weather and rural living conditions, all of which seemed to suggest a potential escape from the worst of Covid-19. Unfortunately, that was wishful thinking. The reality at present is that millions of people in developing countries are now dying of the virus, with cramped and unhygienic living conditions increasing the spread. The difference between now and a year ago, however, is the development of several vaccines. Why, then, are many developing countries in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak yet to receive a single dose?

Developed countries have, in my opinion, failed at even attempting to enforce global equitable access to a vaccine. While I acknowledge that the world consists of nation states who will obviously prioritise their own citizens, developed countries repeatedly order excessive numbers of vaccines. For instance, The People’s Vaccine Allegiance has reported that in the early stages of vaccine development, Canada pre-ordered enough doses to vaccinate their population five times over, the UK around three times (around 5.7 per head).
How is this acceptable? Manufacturers are already working at maximum capacity, and such over-ordering means that any order of vaccines by developing countries would be delayed until such excessive orders from developed countries are fulfilled– a length of time that most of these poorer nations cannot afford. Not only will deaths continue to increase, but the huge delay in receiving vaccines also raises concerns about whether variants could develop during this time. Already, there are dozens of known Covid-19 variants across the globe. Had the vaccination rollout worldwide been more equal and fair, perhaps this number would be smaller.

Over-ordering vaccines leaves developing nations at an unnecessary disadvantage in comparison to countries like the UK and US, and is an undeniable act of selfishness. I am unconvinced by the pledge from many developed countries to donate any excess vaccinations to COVAX – the global initiative founded by the WHO, Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), with the aim of facilitating doses for at least 20 percent of each registered country’s population – when their populations are vaccinated.

While better than nothing,WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has pointed out that COVAX was not supposed to work by countries donating excess vaccinations. This presents these countries (places needing vaccinations urgently, like India, where the BBC has reported over 340,000 deaths as of last week) with a delay period once again. Perhaps, one might wonder, these developing nations should not have ordered excess in the first place, in order to avoid the potential of sitting on vaccines?

Looking forward, what about COVAX itself? As of June this year, the BBC reported that 49 million doses of vaccines had been administered through the COVAX scheme. However, in April 2021 COVAX was far from reaching its 100 million doses target for the end of March, delivering just 38.5 million doses. Despite Joe Biden’s decision to join COVAX and donate heavily, lead officials in COVAX have high-lighted that other developed countries need to assist in bridging the gap between the monetary aim and reality. The BBC has also reported that a further $25 billion from developed nations is required to fund the program successfully; COVAX itself reports that it has not received its $3.2 billion target for 2021, despite having been pledged $6 billion by developed nations. This is not acceptable.

As Dr Tedros has high-lighted, the developed world has been “gobbling up” vaccines, and combined with underfunding COVAX, this makes accessing vaccines incredibly challenging for the developing world. 67 countries have no vaccination scheme in place what-soever aside from COVAX as reported by the BBC – COVAX needs more financing and prioritisation by developed countries in order to effectively save lives across the globe.

It is important to highlight that it is in the interest of developed countries that less wealthy nations have the opportunity to vaccinate their citizens. The International Chamber of Commerce Research Foundation has highlighted that the failure to vaccinate the nations who have applied for COVAX could cost the global economy up to $9.2 trillion, with half of that cost falling on wealthy nations. We are used to living in a highly integrated world economy, with people moving from location to location and free trade. Ongoing lockdowns and widespread sickness will continue to interrupt global supply chains; it is likely beneficial for the economy of the developed nations to invest in the vaccination of the developing countries.

The economy aside, a pandemic is not over until every nation and individual is free from its repercussions. Lower Covid-19 levels acrossthe globe will reduce the chance of mutations that could potentially be dangerous worldwide, and until every country is vaccinated, the pandemic is not over.

The developed world should not have over-ordered vaccines to such an extent, and the developing world should not be reliant on having to wait for donations of excess vaccines. The most vulnerable in the world must be vaccinated with a greater sense of urgency as it should be the utmost priority of all.

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