The finish line of the COVID-19 vaccine race is not in sight – yet. Several research teams seem to have developed potentially successful medication that could put the pandemic to a halt, and are now in a testing phase. However, once a vaccine is approved it will not be readily available for everyone immediately, sparking a competition among world leaders to buy medication for their citizens pre-release. It’s feared that the claim to the first batches of vaccines will be won by rich countries, leaving developing countries with major issues.
Why is vaccine nationalism a threat to developing countries?
The Conversation describes how the vaccine race among different nations leads to disadvantages for countries with little resources, stating that the race “deprives populations in the Global South from timely access to vital public health goods… [it] allocates vaccines to moderately at-risk populations in wealthy countries over populations at higher risk in developing economies.” That this threat – which has widely been described as ‘vaccine nationalism’ – is very real, is demonstrated by the United States’ purchase patterns of Remdesivir. The drug has been effective in inhibiting the production of new COVID-19 particles in the body. Trump’s administration secured 100% of the projected production of July 2020 from producer Gilead Sciences, as well as 90% of August and September – although production has more than doubled.
Over the past years, the concept of intersectionality has become a framework to understand the ways in which overlapping identities are uniquely impacted by systems of oppression. As Andie Markowitz of Waging Nonviolence states in this article, “The (…) pandemic has made it more urgent than ever to incorporate an intersectional approach to resistance.” As for the vaccine, the potential lack of access to it could enforce already present social and health inequities among us.
The inability to afford the needed healthcare measures in developing countries has the potential to create a downward spiral; as long as a vaccine is not available to eliminate COVID-19, countries will experience issues such as overcrowded hospitals, a deteriorating economy and the potential for political disagreements.
Below are several organizations working towards achieving equity in the health care system.
Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI) is a “20-year old public-private partnership that believes the marriage of markets and philanthropy will bring vaccines to everyone in the world,” as described to The Guardian. The ambitious alliance has recently launched The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX) together with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). COVAX is an established fund for countries to invest in potential vaccines together, thus spreading the risks. As a major backer of pharmaceutical companies, GAVI can also set high demands for a cooperative system in which developing countries also receive adequate amounts of the vaccine, a wish also voiced by The Guardian.
COVAX has been described as the ‘only truly global solution to the COVID-19 pandemic’ by Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of GAVI. He describes how it can guarantee a vaccine even for those countries who would not be able to afford it. While around 90 developing countries would benefit from the fund, 75 others have expressed their interest in participating by donating money, therefore ‘vouching’ for those low-income countries participating that could not afford the vaccine on its own. By removing the payment barrier for these countries, they are enabled to adequately respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and thus minimizing damage to the country’s political, economic and social systems.
COVAX aims to deliver 2 billion doses of approved vaccines by the end of 2021, and is still in the process of securing more countries to participate. One exciting new participant is China, who started supporting COVAX starting only in October 2020. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying tweeted: “This is an important step China has taken to uphold the concept of a shared community of health for all and to honour its commitment to turn #COVID19 vaccines into a global public good.” China’s support serves as a stark contrast to the United States’ actions, a country that has publicly spoken out against joining COVAX in September. The US claimed COVAX to be constraining and overly influenced by the WHO and China – who was at that point, not a supporter of the alliance.
Another organization in the vaccine race is the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Established in 2017 as an international alliance of public authorities, private companies, and inter- and non-governmental charities, one of CEPI’s main goals is to provide equitable access to vaccinations around the world. This means that vaccines are first available where they are most needed to end disease outbreaks, regardless of whether they could pay or not. In order to do so, CEPI has set up an Equitable Access Policy.
This policy contains five pillars: making vaccines available regardless of ability to pay; ensuring projects are followed through to completion; determining and sharing commercial returns; open access to data and samples from studies; and monitoring how vaccine development partners are implementing their equitable access commitments.
As part of COVAX, CEPI is “leading COVAX vaccine research and development work, which aims to develop at least three safe and effective vaccines which can be made available to economies participating in the COVAX Facility.”
The Coronavirus Global Response
Launched by Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, this initiative calls for ‘global action for universal access to affordable coronavirus vaccination, treatment and testing’. In response to the WHO’s efforts, the mutually desired goal is to eliminate COVID-19 worldwide. So far, close to 16 billion euros have been raised. The role of governments is crucial in this pandemic; as the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) writes in a recent report, the rule of law and good governance are indispensable to realize the right to health during COVID-19 and beyond.
At the end of August 2020, the coalition confirmed their interest in participating in the COVAX initiative, essentially establishing an even stronger coalition to make the vaccine widely available. Jutta Urpilainen, Commissioner for International Partnerships, highlighted this plan: “Only by securing equitable access to a COVID-19 vaccine across the world will we end the pandemic and ensure a sustainable recovery.”
Another organisation working towards the spread of the COVID-19 vaccine worldwide is the International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Among others, they have broadcast an webinar to become aware of the hurdles that one has to overcome to spread the vaccine: “Leaders and scientists in the international vaccine field discussed the barriers to vaccine access we must overcome to avoid and the role the international community will play in promoting equity in delivering a COVID-19 vaccine.”
As long as a COVID-19 vaccine is not available around the world, existing inequities will hit developing countries harder. Will these initiatives be enough to counter vaccine nationalism and the vaccine race? Let us know in the comments.
What are your thoughts or concerns on the vaccine race? Leave us a comment below, email us at [email protected], browse our organizations and initiatives in our online library, leave us a comment on Facebook, tweet us @rightsconnected and interact with us on Instagram @rightsconnected.
This blog post was written by Editorial and Content Intern, Christa Koeyvoets and edited by Education and Communications Associate, Sabrina Sanchez.
Featured image borrowed from Unsplash.