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Enough vaccines for everyone if rich nations care to share

People in rich nations can still refuse to take vaccines, but those in poor countries do not have the luxury of this life-saving option.

Aina Hayati Sharir
3 minute read

When the Pfizer vaccine was first out of the gate with 148 million doses authorised in February 2021, it had already exceeded the total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases recorded throughout the world.

As of May 24, more than 1.7 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, equating to 22 doses for every 100 people.

In theory, this would indicate that global herd immunity is achievable in the near future. However, we are nowhere close to it – thanks to rich countries’ hoarding-vaccines attitude, or as the World Health Organization (WHO) puts it, “vaccine nationalism”.

We knew this was coming.

For starters, WHO cautioned in August last year that we should avoid vaccine nationalism that enables governments to secure vaccine supplies from pharmaceutical manufacturers directly for their own population in advance of the vaccines being approved and becoming available in the market.

In other words, these countries used their economic might to get “first access” to the vaccines – oftentimes beyond their populations’ needs.

To contextualise this, the wealthiest 27 countries, representing only 10.5% of the world’s population, now own 35.5% of global vaccine supply.

The US alone has 20%, more than enough to inoculate its own people three times over.

It comes with no surprise that WHO also struggles to ensure equitable vaccine distribution through its worldwide Covax initiative. At the time of writing, Serum Institute of India (SII), the AstraZeneca manufacturer that supplies the largest amount of vaccine doses, said that it could no longer export its goods.

Of course, this will affect Covax badly as SII had promised to deliver 200 million doses to Covax yet only 30 million doses had been distributed as of late May.

According to Unicef, SII’s delivery delays were partly because of limited production capacity and lack of funding, alongside vaccine nationalism. Indeed, this whole situation is a big mess.

On May 5, the Biden administration’s belated intention to support the temporary waiver of intellectual property (IP) protection for Covid-19 vaccines was only a reactive response to the spiking caseload in India. He could have done it way sooner.

With new, more virulent Covid-19 variants identified in South Africa and India, epidemiologists have yet to prove whether the currently available vaccines will be able to effectively work against them.

The race between vaccines and variants is heating up, adding more reasons to why vaccine nationalism is short-sighted.

While people in developed countries can still refuse to take the vaccines, those living in poor countries do not have the luxury of this life-saving option as it is not even being offered to them.

Developing economies, including Malaysia, will continue to face vaccine supply shortages or delays until wealthier countries decide to share their oversupply. WHO estimates that 80% of a country’s population or four out of five adults in a country must be vaccinated in order to comfortably achieve herd immunity. Currently, it is not certain that even one out of 10 people in poor countries will get their jabs.

Vaccine nationalism will get us all nowhere – this monopolistic mindset will only backfire.

No one is safe until everyone – even those across the border – is safe. Haven’t we all learnt that this pandemic knows no boundaries?

Vaccination should be done collaboratively across countries with the hindsight that none of us is protected until everyone is vaccinated.

This is not just about disrupting global vaccine supply chains. This is about wealthy countries’ disastrous moral failure to do the right thing, and it is not something new.

Aina Hayati Sharir is a Perdana fellow at the Prime Minister’s Office.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.