When the inventor of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk, was asked who owns his discovery, he responded, ‘the people. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?’
As we enter the second year of COVID-19, various pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Novavax have completed their final round of vaccine trials at a record pace, and the roll out in some countries has now begun. Despite this being a cause for hope as we finally start to see some light at the end of the long COVID tunnel, the world has started to witness the phenomenon of ‘vaccine nationalism,’ which may hinder the global battle against the pandemic. Such a term is used to define the actions taken by governments of wealthy countries, who have signed direct deals with pharmaceutical companies in order to receive first access to billions of COVID-19 vaccine doses for their own populations. In doing so, these countries restrict the access to vaccines for other states.
At the beginning of January, 42 countries were rolling out ‘safe and effective vaccines(…), thirty six of these are high-income countries and six are middle-income countries.’ Some of these countries ordered enough doses during the trial stages to protect their entire populations three times over. In contrast, nearly 70 other countries may only be able to start vaccinating one in ten people this year, with the poorest unlikely to be immunised by 2022.
In order to tackle this issue, international bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), Gavi, the vaccine alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), have launched COVAX, a global initiative that seeks to ensure the ‘rapid and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all countries.’ The COVAX scheme has managed to secure agreements that allow poorer countries to have access to nearly two billion doses of several vaccines, and has also planned for further doses to be granted through donations given by the 190 participating countries.
In addition to the COVAX scheme, a coalition of international organisations such as Oxfam, Amnesty International, Global Justice Now and UNAIDS have launched an initiative called The People’s Vaccine Alliance. They are campaigning for the COVID-19 vaccine to be made into a ‘global public good,’ demanding international pharmaceutical companies to lift the barrier of intellectual property rights from their vaccines, and to share their knowledge in the interest of public health. They have also highlighted the need for companies to lower the price of their products, condemning Pfizer for selling its two doses for $39 with an 80% profit margin. Other vaccine distributors, such as AstraZeneca, already pledged to do this in November 2020, stating that their vaccine would be sold at-cost to developing countries.
The director general of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stressed the need for international cooperation in the COVID-19 vaccination programme, saying that ‘we will only truly end the pandemic if we end it everywhere at the same time, which means it’s essential to vaccinate some people in all countries, rather than all people in some countries.’ Indeed, vaccine nationalism is a shortsighted idea. In vaccinating only certain populations whilst leaving other countries unchecked, the virus may continue to develop, mutate and eventually become resistant to the current vaccines.
Moreover, the lack of a coordinated, global vaccine initiative will negatively impact the economies of richer countries. The American think tank RAND carried out a study that outlines the potential economic benefits associated with equal and global access to COVID-19 vaccines. The report’s findings suggest that ‘the US, the UK, the EU and other high-income countries combined could lose about $119 billion a year if the poorest countries are denied supply. If these high-income countries paid for the supply of vaccines, there could be a benefit-to-cost ratio of 4.8 to 1. For every $1 spent, high-income countries would get back about $4.8.’
The research carried out by RAND therefore demonstrates that countries practising vaccine nationalism will not actually benefit from it. In the case of COVID-19, the prosperity of the sovereign state is in fact dependent on the global, common good. Adopting the attitude of collective responsibility to tackle the pandemic is not an idealist, far-fetched idea, but is the logical conclusion to a crisis that has created difficult circumstances for individuals around the world.
International organisations and initiatives such as the COVAX scheme play a vital role in reminding us of the cosmopolitan ideals we should at times adhere to. They are important components of civil society, as they seek to build bridges between different nations and attempt to make large-scale, crucial projects equal and fair processes for all. At the same time, they are not always able to break down the world’s unproductive power dynamics. For instance, in their battle for making the COVID-19 vaccine a public good, The People’s Vaccine Alliance has criticised the COVAX scheme for its non-transparency regarding its deals with pharmaceutical companies, for not involving poorer countries in its decision making, and not utilising its purchasing-power to push companies towards sharing their science, knowledge and technology. Indeed, whilst the COVAX initiative is an important start to an equitable vaccination process, it also demonstrates how international organisations do not always have enough influence to implement policies. A change in our approach towards overcoming COVID-19 must therefore be a collective, universal process.
As long as the vaccine continues to play the role of a corporate, consumerist good that is to be traded for a profit with its intellectual property rights guarded, poorer countries who have little authority in the global capitalist market will not obtain equitable access to vaccine doses. In the words of UN secretary-general, António Guterres, ‘A COVID-19 vaccine must be seen as a global public good.’
By Nicola Hope
Nicola is a master’s student reading Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies with the King’s War Studies department and is a working group member in KTT’s Defence and Diplomacy policy centre.
During her time at the think tank, Nicola has become increasingly interested in writing about the power dynamics present within the current global order, particularly in regards to human rights and equality. In her master’s studies, she has started to explore alternative processes to peace-building, conflict transformation, and transitional justice, primarily within the sphere of art, culture and dialogue.
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