Time to clamp down on dangers of vaccine nationalism

Scientific breakthroughs are not enough, pharmaceutical companies and political leaders must ensure vital commodities reach everyone. But they are failing.

Expert comment Published 11 February 2021 Updated 7 July 2021 2 minute READ

As spring approaches in the northern hemisphere, there is growing anticipation 2021 will be the year the world conquers the coronavirus pandemic.

This optimism stems from the extraordinary collaborative efforts of scientists in discovering and testing six, safe and effective vaccines within a year of the first outbreak. But sadly, politics will be the biggest factor in determining whether and how vaccines are distributed around the world.

With new concerning variants of the coronavirus being reported on almost a weekly basis, the urgency to vaccinate as many of the world’s population is obvious and as pragmatic as it is altruistic.

But, despite the World Health Organisation (WHO) secretary-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warning that ‘no-one is safe until everyone is safe’, most leaders are short-sightedly fixated on a race simply to cover their own populations first.

This failure to collectively combat the pandemic poses a threat to global health security and the battered world economy. As the UN secretary-general noted in a tweet ’science is succeeding – but solidarity is failing’.

Just three months before the first outbreak, world leaders gathered at the United Nations (UN) to sign a declaration on universal health coverage (UHC). This committed governments to ensure all will receive the health services they need without suffering financial hardship.

Under this approach, the ultimate goal should be universal vaccine coverage phased in according to relative need with greater priority being given to people most at risk.

Domestically, this strategy is being adopted by most governments. However, if the world is serious about tackling the pandemic, it is vital to adopt it across humanity not just within national borders. This means the elderly and health and care workers in developing countries being vaccinated before young adults in wealthy countries.

But politicians are not rising to the opportunity. Vaccine nationalism is resulting in rich countries procuring quantities multiple times the size of their population, which in addition is driving up vaccine prices for those struggling to procure any.

Of the more than 50 countries which have started vaccination programmes to date, all are high- or middle-income countries. In the meantime, low-income countries are waiting for limited supplies from the pooled-procurement facility (Covax) established by the WHO with the first deliveries not expected until late February.

The first tranche of Covax allocations will enable participating countries to immunise only around three per cent of their population by mid-2021 by comparison, the UK is planning to offer vaccines to 47 per cent of its population by June.

The Economist Intelligence Unit predicts there will not be widespread vaccination coverage in 84 poorer countries until 2023. The WHO has pleaded with leaders to procure vaccines through Covax. But with wealthy nations failing to provide sufficient funding many feel more radical measures are needed.

In particular there is growing support for a COVID-19 Technology Access Pool – initially proposed by the president of Costa Rica – to share all scientific and technological know-how, and intellectual property related to vaccines to maximise global production.

Nations signed up to the sustainable development goals supposedly pledged that ‘nobody should be left behind’. The equitable roll out of COVID-19 vaccines is an acid test for the commitment to both these goals and universal health, and is currently failing.

Most people’s expectations for 2021 were that it must be better than 2020, but already there are worrying signs this could be the year that the legacy of world’s collaborative scientists was squandered by the world’s competitive politicians.

This article was originally published in The Times Red Box.