The global COVID-19 vaccine race has drawn political lines around the distribution and trust of vaccines, with experts warning that vaccine nationalism and monopolization of vaccines by wealthy nations could extend the pandemic.
In the face of the greatest public health crisis of our time, global vaccine developers have broken scientific records, bringing hope that the virus will be defeated sooner rather than later, but inequal distribution could be causing unnecessary deaths.
“Modeling shows that more equitable vaccine availability could reduce global deaths by about 30 percent,” Marco Hafner, senior economist and research leader at RAND Europe, told Al Arabiya English.
While governments race to distribute COVID-19 vaccines in the hope of returning to normality, experts have cautioned that global consensus is necessary in order to halt the pandemic.
“[Vaccine nationalism] might risk prolonging the crisis. If you don’t inoculate a sufficient percentage of the population, you don’t have the immunity to go back to normality,” said Nikos Passas, criminology professor at Northeastern University.
Eurasia Group’s analysis from January 4 predicts that the impact of COVID-19, however, will not disappear with widespread vaccination, given the public debt, lost jobs, and undermined trust.
In September 2020, a study by Boston-based Northeastern University concluded vaccine nationalism could cause almost twice as many deaths as distributing them equally.
“In the UK, the virus has mutated. In such a scenario, obviously deaths could be much higher,” added Hafner.
The rise of vaccine nationalism
While COVID-19 vaccines have been developed, supply remains tight, while demand is high as governments and public health bodies seek an end to the pandemic.
“This could potentially mean that a low-risk person in a high-income country could be vaccinated first, then a high-risk person in a low-income country,” added Hafner. “Some countries may not get it [vaccine] until 2024.”
“There are two elements. One is the decisions made by individual countries about which vaccines they’re going to use and how. The second is global access,” agreed John P. Moore, vaccine researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College.
Rich countries have secured 4.1 billion COVID-19 vaccines, while poor countries have two billion, making them entirely reliant on 20 percent population coverage from COVAX, the World Health Organization’s vaccine group, according to research published by Duke University in December.
“COVID-19 created a supply demand asymmetry and all kinds of pressures for people to find something that is not easily accessible,” agreed Passas.
Some countries responded to the supply problem by developing their own vaccines.
Following the announcement of approval for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, India was the latest country to also announce emergency rollout of two homegrown vaccines – Covishield and Covaxin.
With 70.42 percent effectiveness, Covishield was labeled as “safe and effective” by Adar Poonawalla, the CEO and owner of the Serum Institute, one of the Covishield’s developers and the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world.
Approved for Phase III clinical trials on January 3, it is yet to go through mass-scale clinical trials.
Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin was labeled safe by India’s Drug Regulator Authority. The vaccine “provides a robust immune response,” according to the Authority’s head, VG Somani.
Neither of the two vaccines will be available for export before mid-2021.
“The [Indian] vaccine was done by the Modi administration for ‘India first’ policy,” Moore explained. “That’s a classic example of vaccine nationalism in a democracy.”
Russia has developed its own indigenous vaccine to fight the virus – Sputnik V, yet to be approved by major world powers.
“I think it’s not adopted in the West because they seem to have their own vaccine candidates they are developing,” Hafner said.