Why unequal access to coronavirus vaccines is a threat to us all

Terry AlvaradoTerry Alvarado | Updated: 12-02-2021 09:32 IST | Created: 12-02-2021 09:32 IST
Why unequal access to coronavirus vaccines is a threat to us all
Representative Image. Image Credit: Pixabay

The announcement that Russia's Sputnik V vaccine – along with those from Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and others still to be approved – is also an effective weapon against the Coronavirus is adding to hopes that the pandemic could soon be under control. But while the growing availability of effective vaccines is encouraging, the light at the end of the tunnel remains faint - as rich countries are pushing forward with large-scale immunization campaigns, it is the divide between the rich and the poor that is turning out to be the greatest challenge in truly conquering the virus comprehensively, that is, on a global scale.

Indeed, wealthy countries have acquired millions of vaccine doses through bilateral deals and rollout has already begun in Western countries, while poorer countries are forced to wait. International programs exist to mitigate this imbalance, including the COVAX initiative, a global alliance co-led by the World Health Organization. COVAX plans to acquire vaccines for distribution in middle-to-low income countries, thereby bridging the gap and make sure that immunization is available to all those who need it.

Vaccine nationalism's ugly head

The difference between the planet's rich and poor countries is glaring at the best of times. During a major crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, it is a ticking time-bomb. Developed nations quickly signed supply agreements with drug manufacturers, ensuring their citizens will be among the first to get the shot, while poorer nations were left at the end of the list. A similar pattern occurred earlier in the pandemic when a rush to acquire much-needed medical equipment saw countries like the USA "hijacking" supplies by subverting normal channels of distribution.

Commentators quickly coined the term "vaccine nationalism" for this kind of behavior, one that COVAX is hoping to circumvent by coordinating the equal-access distribution of vaccines all over the world. The vaccines will be supplied by Pfizer at the cost of production, and given that immunization requires two doses, this first batch will be enough for 20 million people. The plan is to increase the number of doses administered via the COVAX program to 150 million in the first quarter of the year and up to 2 billion by the end of 2021.

Vaccination campaigns falling short

While ambitious and necessary, questions remain about how achievable COVAX's targets truly are, considering how difficult vaccine distribution has proven even in wealthy countries. Take South Korea as a poignant example. The country, previously lauded for its response to the pandemic, has fallen behind in the race to vaccinate its people. Seoul has yet to start its vaccination campaign following several embarrassing delays but is set on getting the ball rolling in mid-February by deploying the military for assistance.

South Korea was slow to secure vaccine doses from the start, instead of placing its hopes on the development of a locally-made cure that is still in the development phase. Although President Moon Jae-in insists that South Korea remains on track for achieving herd immunity by fall 2021, the government has come under heavy fire by the medical community for lacking a detailed vaccination roadmap, as well as logistical plans to ensure that vaccines are broadly available to the population in time.

In Europe, things aren't looking better. Even countries that rushed to sign vaccine contracts early are finding it hard to obtain a strong rate of vaccination. Germany, France, and Italy, the EU's largest and wealthiest countries, are having a rocky start to their immunization campaign one month after the approval of the vaccine. Berlin's slow progress is particularly noteworthy, given that Germany had managed to keep Covid-cases much below the EU average during the first wave. Although chancellor Merkel is denying any egregious logistical problems, it's clear that the government's crisis management has been less than stellar.

Yet wealthy European countries still hold the lead over the neglected global South. Even an imperfect vaccination effort in which large-scale inoculations began in December is preferable to one that won't get off the ground until the spring - or even later.

A "catastrophic moral failure"

The price of rich countries' behavior, in the words of WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, "will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world's poorest countries", in what he rightly called "a catastrophic moral failure". He also scolded the entitlement of rich countries within the vaccine distribution systems, warning that it "could delay COVAX deliveries and create exactly the scenario COVAX was designed to avoid, with hoarding, a chaotic market, an uncoordinated response, and continued social and economic disruption".

Experts warn that creating a two-tier planet, in which the poor are shut off from access to immunization will continue to deepen the global economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Wealthy countries do not exist in a bubble, and rapid economic recovery is not possible without a global effort to stamp out the pandemic. And the damage will not be contained to the developing world but will be felt by poor and rich countries alike.

Now, more than ever, the wealthy and powerful of the world need to understand that there is no end to the pandemic if vigorous efforts to vaccinate the world's poor are not made. Yes, large-scale vaccination is proving difficult even for countries with adequate resources and infrastructure. Yes, it will probably be even harder for COVAX to distribute the vaccine in underprivileged regions. But the truth is, there is no other choice - either the world manages to end this pandemic together, or it will not manage to end it at all.

(Disclaimer: Devdiscourse's journalists were not involved in the production of this article. The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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