Vaccine Nationalism is a Zero-Sum Game

By: Joel K. Richards

A year ago, developing a vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic by the end of 2020 seemed like an impossible task. Afterall, based on previous experience, vaccines typically required up to 10 years or more to develop. However, as Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it is done.” In this vein, what once seemed impossible, has now been achieved and there are currently multiple vaccine candidates to inoculate against COVID-19, each with varying levels of efficacy.

Traditionally, the world has had very good experiences with respect to the development and distribution of vaccines. According to Douglas Broom of the World Economic Forum (WEF), vaccination is one of the world’s most successful health interventions, saving as many as 3 million lives every year. To understand the importance of vaccines, one only has to wonder how many persons would have died or been unable to lead healthy and productive lives had there been no immunisation for Polio, Tuberculosis, Measles/Rubella, Yellow Fever and many other diseases.

Plain and simple, vaccines save lives and those developed and being developed for COVID-19 are no different. However, as Henrietta Fore, Executive Director, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), mentioned on 3 February in an article penned for the Davos Agenda of the WEF, “vaccine nationalism” threatens to undermine equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

Through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) facility, 186 countries have joined forces to ensure the fair allocation of COVID-19 vaccines to all countries, including the poorest countries. COVAX is aiming aim to deliver more than 330 million vaccine doses in the first half of 2021.

Notwithstanding the highly commendable efforts under the COVAX facility, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), research shows that most vaccine doses have been purchased by high-income countries. Research by the Duke Global Health Innovation Center suggests that high-income countries currently hold a confirmed 4.2 billion doses (potential vaccines), while low-middle income nations hold 670 million. One wealthy and highly advanced country has even pre-ordered nearly 9 doses of vaccines for each of its citizens.

To further highlight the concerns about vaccine inequality, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has said that more than 39 million doses have been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries, but only 25 in one of the lowest-income countries.

A race to the bottom to secure vaccines is in no one’s best interest. The pandemic will not end simply by defeating COVID-19 in rich countries alone. The pandemic will end when there is a coordinated and concerted global effort to distribute vaccines and other treatments equitably, until the vast majority of the global population is protected against the virus. Ultimately, in a zero-sum game of vaccine nationalism, no one comes out better off.

One can only hope that fears about vaccine nationalism are overblown. Afterall, some small developing countries are expecting their first doses of vaccinations very soon. For instance, officials in Barbados recently announced that the country is in line to receive 100,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, enough to inoculate about one-third of its population. This notwithstanding, international pressure must be maintained to allow for all countries to have a fair shot at vaccinating their people against COVID-19.

Finally, beyond the issue of vaccine inequality, the other fundamental matter of public trust in vaccines also needs to be addressed. Citizens have a legitimate right to feel safe taking any vaccine and vaccine manufacturers, governments and relevant international bodies also owe it to the public to be transparent and accountable. We can get over the vaccine nationalism hurdle, but the greater hurdle might yet be public distrust in vaccines, and this is a difficulty that must be overcome to improve our chances of beating COVID-19 sooner rather than later.  

Joel K. Richards is a Vincentian national living and working in Europe in the field of international trade and development.