The world can’t afford vaccine imperialism when millions wait for a jab

The reluctance of countries like the US to share raw materials that are required for vaccine development in the developing world including India is shocking and ironical, especially when they are sitting on a surplus of vaccines

Representative photo

In normal times anything involving one billion people would have been an event with a lot of fanfare; but this is pandemic season where the coronavirus is wreaking havoc with a vengeance on countries like India and other developing nations that are now in the grip of the third or fourth waves. Some 143 days after the first COVID-19 vaccine was approved in the United Kingdom on December 2, 2020, one billion doses have been administered globally, both the first and second jabs, in spite of the fact that more than three million people have died from a virus that took its first known toll in February 2020.

The sobering statistics is that it will take another 19 months to vaccinate 75 per cent of the world at the rate of 18.5 million shots every day. And in a world population of 8 billion spread over some 203 countries and territories, there are still millions who still have not seen a vaccine. And this is not to speak of those handful of countries that are in absolute denial even going to the extent of mocking the norms that are being followed by way of masks and social distancing. There is a vast difference in the vaccination  rates by continent and naturally patterned by wealth: doses administered per 100 persons is 42 for North America; 25 for Europe; 15 in South America; 9.4 in Asia; 4.5 in Oceana; and a dismal 1.1 for Africa.

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There are many perspectives to the vaccines story going beyond just numbers of sore hands, as for instance, the financial and geopolitics involved in the distribution chain: the richest countries got hold of Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson; the less wealthy were to contend with Russian and Chinese vaccines; and the width of AstraZeneca is seen in the developing world because of distribution agreements. In all it is being pointed out that the countries with high incomes are getting vaccinated 25 times faster than the rest. Geopolitically, North America is home to Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson and Moderna; Latin America and the Caribbean to Russian and Chinese versions; Western Europe and Scandinavia to Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca; different vaccines in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East; South and Central Asia falling back on AstraZeneca and the East Asia-Pacific going with western options.

There are many facets that have been discussed on the subject of vaccination, one of which being “nationalism” that has been loosely defined as the right of a nation state to secure its doses first and then looking at globalism and the needs of others. In the case of India as the country is being battered by the second or third spike and in a situation that seems to literally get out of control, the country finds itself in a situation where states have ran out of vaccines in addition to other things like oxygen, masks, sanitizers and PPEs. Just where the central and state authorities bungled on the numbers as far as vaccines are concerned or horror stories of corruption and mismanagement is a story for another day; but for now the focus is on countries like the United States that are sitting on not only surplus of vaccines, but have also been reluctant to share raw materials that are required for vaccine development in the developing world including India.

This has led to howls of Vaccine Imperialism on the part of rich nations. Contrast this to the time in April 2020 when the Trump administration “demanded” India relent on the export of hydroxychloroquine or face retaliation. The Modi government quietly lifted the curbs without much fanfare. But this time around India and South Africa with the support of some 100 developing countries urged Washington to waive patents and property rights for vaccine development for global good. And the shaft that New Delhi has been getting from Washington (before it lifted the curbs on export of raw materials to India) has been along expected lines: professorial lecturing—President Biden style—on the gains made at the WTO, Intellectual Property Rights, Trade Related Issues pertaining to Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and Doha Round, to mention a few. The United States is not alone in this game; it is in the august company of the European Union, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Japan, Norway, Canada, Australia and Brazil. The US has finally relented, with the Biden government on Sunday promising to send raw materials urgently required for the production of the Covishield vaccine.

The Biden White House and administration has come under varying degrees of pressure to come to the help of India at this dire time; and that call has come from the American Chamber of Commerce, powerful lawmakers in the House of Representatives and Senate along with a sense of disbelief from prominent members of Indian Americans, the community as a whole casting their lot behind the President in the November elections of 2020. And there are those sarcastic remarks in social media as to where “Chithi” is — a Tamil word for Aunty that Vice President Kamala Harris spoke at the time of campaigning sending the diaspora including the media into a tizzy. That “Dear Chithi” can do nothing for India is something that has been explained by this writer in these columns many times! What is the point of being a special friend as a part of the Quad is something that has been alluded to as well, a snub not only for the United States but for Japan and Australia as well.

It is not just an issue of temporarily lifting production and legal barriers to enable countries produce their own vaccines that are critical at this stage to prevent and contain a pandemic. According to a report in USA Today, the United States could be “swimming” in vaccine surplus in the next couple of months and there is already surplus vaccine that is not being used as a result of federal bottlenecks or “holds” that could be shipped immediately. For example apparently there are some 20 million doses of AstraZeneca idling at a warehouse in Ohio; and the United States has the luxury of sitting on four vaccine options, with a fifth one being contemplated.

Blocking the TRIPS waiver is a “scandal that affects us all” argues Andrew Stroehlein, the European Media Director of Human Rights Watch. “It’s galling to hear pharma (companies) moan that a temporary waiver would ‘disincentivise’ them from making future vaccines. Apart from bordering on extortion, it’s ahistorical. What incentivised them last time was our taxes. Our governments poured billions into developing vaccines. They could be thus incentivised again in future, obviously,” he says.

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Further in all the noise against waivers, President Biden and his team will do well to remember that unless countries are back on track at the soonest, American taxpayers will continue to fork out trillions of dollars in the name of relief plans as domestic sectors like higher education will continue to hurt and badly at that.

(The author is a former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations. He currently teaches Journalism and Mass Communication in the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai)    

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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