By Lycke Holmén
As countries begin to roll out vaccination campaigns, the end of the pandemic is finally in sight. But with rich countries hogging up to four times the doses necessary, poorer countries are left scrambling. In February, South Africa became the first sub-Saharan country to distribute its first doses, and while the African Union is planning to administer 670 million doses across the continent, estimates show that many developing countries will not manage to fully vaccinate their populations before 2024. Meanwhile, 4.2 billion doses have already been secured by richer nations. Vaccine nationalism casts a long shadow on the hope of a quick return to normalcy; risking not only a prolonging of the pandemic and serious harm to the global economy, but also, as expressed by the World Health Organization, leaves us facing a ‘catastrophic moral failure’.
Priority manufacturing deals are the reason behind the vaccine oversupply in countries such as the US, UK, Israel, China, and within the EU. As pharmaceutical companies competed to produce a Covid vaccine, wealthier nations bought up several different types, to ensure delivery by the time the race was finished. Now, as the first vaccines are being distributed, said countries have first dibs – with 51% of vaccine doses being reserved despite making up only 15% of the world’s population. This means that Western economies will eventually be able to open up, while the pandemic continues to ravage in countries such as Myanmar, Ecuador, and Nepal.
In the poorest countries, the effects of a prolonged delay may turn out to be even more damaging than the virus itself. Due to physical distancing measures and lockdowns, numerous vaccination clinics in Asia and Africa closed down and childhood immunisation programs were put to a temporary halt. Quickly thereafter, a surge in diseases such as the measles and polio could be observed; the effects of which would be more detrimental to the general public than Covid itself, according to a study published by The Lancet last year. If the trend continues, experts fear that an even greater outbreak awaits; this time even more deadly due to the widespread malnutrition and medical resource shortage caused by the pandemic.
There are, however, global initiatives underway to ensure equitable access to vaccines in both higher- and lower-income countries. Covax, a joint effort led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, the Global Vaccine Alliance, and the World Health Organization, is working together with vaccine manufacturers and governments with the aim to distribute at least 1.3 billion doses globally by the end of this year. Funding will be provided through donations by partner governments who will in turn be provided access to Covax’s vaccine portfolio. Yet, the project has fallen short on delivery as richer countries undermine vaccine supply through individual bilateral deals with manufacturing companies. This leaves developing countries dependent upon high- and middle-income countries’ willingness to share.
There are reasons for hope as vaccine production picks up pace, yet it is not a completely utopian solution. It stands clear that the virus will continue to claim lives in more vulnerable countries as nationalism shapes the strategies of the rich. A recovery of the global health and economy therefore requires that the cure, much like the virus, knows no borders.
By Lycke Holmén
Illustration: Gabriella Borg Bruchfeld