The UK is currently pushing ahead in its Covid-19 vaccination programme. 600,000 Brits alone received a dose on the 30th of January in pursuit of the Prime Minister’s pledge that the most vulnerable will be vaccinated by mid-February. The UK government has ordered over 300 million doses in total, ensuring that all British citizens will be immunised with doses to spare, mirroring the situation in other wealthier nations including Canada and the US.
Yet the reality in other countries is very different. Many lower income states have yet to rollout Covid-19 vaccination programmes or have vaccinated only a tiny portion of their populations. According to research carried out by the Duke Health Innovation Center, the African Union, with its population of more than 1.25 billion, has purchased only 270 million vaccine doses. Experts have argued that we are witnessing the beginnings of a “vaccine apartheid”, where developed nations are receiving access to jabs ahead of poorer developing nations.
The moral implications of this impending crisis are worrying. Already, the costs of some vaccines for lower income countries have risen to more than twice that of what higher income countries have paid, as they become scarcer due to aggressive purchasing tactics. In the name of protecting their populations, developing nations are forced to plunge further into debt.
If the UK continues to doggedly pursue the goal of ensuring that all adults have received a first dose by autumn of this year, the state of affairs will only worsen elsewhere across the world. Vulnerable people in poorer countries will die before they are vaccinated as low risk adults receive immunity across Canada, the EU, the US and the UK. As a 19-year-old who is unlikely to become seriously ill from Covid-19, it is distressing to think that by receiving the vaccination, I could be depriving a frontline worker or immunocompromised person in a developing country their dose.
Wealthier nations stockpiling such a critical resource is not only unethical, but economically irresponsible. The International Chamber of Commerce has estimated that it will cost the world economy over $9 trillion if developing countries continue to struggle to access the vaccine. A prolonged continuation of the pandemic will only result in declining demand and damaged supply chains, equally impacting the economies of both the richest and poorest countries.
The situation has become even more pressing as experts have identified several new variants of the virus, originating in the UK, South Africa and Brazil. These variants are potentially more transmissible, deadly and may reduce the effectiveness of existing vaccines. An enduring “vaccine apartheid” could increase the likelihood of these mutations occurring, placing an ongoing strain on health services that are on the brink of collapse.
As the UK and EU squabble over doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine like petulant children, it is increasingly evident that vaccine nationalism is well and truly upon us. But there is reason to be optimistic. Norway has promised to share its surplus doses with poorer countries, whilst India has shipped vaccines to Bangladesh and Nepal. COVAX, the WHO’s pooling mechanism tasked with overseeing a fair global vaccine rollout, has received donations from countries including the UK. This means it will be able to share over 1 billion vaccine doses this year.
However, these doses will not be enough. More financial pledges must be made to COVAX. Countries with vaccine contracts should commit to donating surplus doses and allow lower income nations to have priority access to supplies to narrow the widening gulf between rich and poor. Yet it is not just vaccines that should be pooled. Vital information concerning the treatment and testing of Covid-19 should be shared and patents waived for the production of vaccines until we are all on an equal footing, and until the pandemic has been brought under control.
Covid-19 does not discriminate, and its impact will be felt by everyone, everywhere, for years to come. Let’s make sure that immunity to the virus does not become merely another hallmark of an increasingly unequal world.