With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world paused. Lives came to a standstill, if they weren’t lost altogether, while economies crashed. People were told to protect themselves as a way to protect others from contracting the virus.
Scientists were put in overdrive, as governments worked tirelessly to find an end to something no one had anticipated less than a year earlier. All the while, the global population was asked to do what they could to slow the spread.
“In many areas of the country, mitigation efforts are inadequate,” a report from the White House Coronavirus Taskforce stated in late November. Vaccines were on the horizon, but the report stated that “the continued increase in transmission remains concerning,” as deaths, cases and hospitalizations reached all-time highs.
Vaccine approval was critical — and came at lightning speed, relative to recent medicines for other diseases. Pfizer’s drug was first to be approved — and while residents in the United Kingdom received the first doses, U.S. President Donald Trump put his “America first” policy into high gear, signing an Executive Order to guarantee Americans would receive the vaccine first and foremost.
“(It is) really shooting yourself in the foot as a country to argue that only the United States should get vaccines,” says Gavin Yamey, professor at Duke University and Director of the Center for Policy Impact in Global Health.
In theory, it makes sense. Taxpayers funded the research to create the vaccines. Health experts, like Yamey, see it differently, citing what’s called ‘vaccine nationalism,’ explaining “this is a global pandemic. An outbreak anywhere can become an outbreak everywhere.”
Trump’s executive order was largely symbolic, but drove home a point that may have rung loudly in countries that don’t have the wealth, or status, of developed nations.
“The U.S. government and many wealthy governments around the world have tremendous capacity to increase the global supply of doses,” says Peter Maybarduk, the Access to Medicines Director at Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer advocacy think tank.
Vaccine approval at this speed was considered a moonshot, however with it now a reality, Maybarduk is urging governments and manufacturers to “resist the idea that it has to be only about how to ration better” when discussing distribution. He says sharing technology will open up avenues to countries that don’t have the buying or negotiating powers of more wealthy nations.
Dozens of developing nations are suffering through the impacts of COVID-19 to a degree far worse than others. Countries that rely heavily on tourism, or manufacturing, are watching their economies crumble. “This is the ultimate poverty trap,” says Nico Lusiani with Oxfam USA. He says equitable vaccine distribution isn’t just about keeping people healthy, but “keeping them employed, keeping them hopeful, keeping them trustful.”
There are concerns that as many as 70 of the world’s poorest countries will not be able to vaccinate at least 90 per cent of their populations. “Rich countries are hoarding doses of the vaccine,” Yamey says.
To help eradicate the virus, the World Health Organization, along with a pair of non-profits backed by Bill Gates, set up a program called COVAX; the effort plans to deliver one-billion doses to 90 countries. The plan has struggled with finances and faces logistical challenges. “We have a system where the countries that have the most money are buying their way to protection,” says Lusiani.
Canada has pre-purchased enough doses from several vaccine manufacturers that each resident could be vaccinated five times. Negotiations are reportedly underway to deliver some of the unused doses to the COVAX facility. Other nations could do the same, but Maybarduk says COVAX needs to “leverage the great manufacturing capacity and convening power of wealthy governments” to ensure the global supply of vaccines grows.
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A secondary issue for COVAX is the lack of American participation. President Trump withdrew the country from the World Health Organization, creating a funding gap — COVAX is more than $4 billion shy of where it needs to be. Skepticism is growing as to whether or not it will be able to meet its goals.
There are also concerns about wealthier nations using their power as a bargaining chip. China is hoping their vaccine candidates will be seen as a public deed. Oxfam’s Lusiani says it’s amounting to “vaccine diplomacy,” in an effort to “get in the good graces of countries that can’t get access to vaccines.”
The geopolitical chessboard could diminish a global collaborative effort to end the pandemic, and again leave struggling countries behind.
Non-profits looking out for the world’s struggling populations are calling for more transparency when it comes to vaccine production, better access to technology — and more participation in the WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool.
Eighteen generic pharmaceutical companies are a part of the program to pool resources, with calls for more manufacturers to join. Maybarduk says this could reduce transaction costs and eliminate corporate backdoor deals.
“We can afford to pay for the technology that will end the pandemic. What we can’t afford is exclusivity and secrecy,” he says.