Countries decry 'vaccine nationalism' as poorer nations struggle for access to shots

Seventy-five countries around the world called for an end to what they describe as “vaccine nationalism” in a joint letter to the United Nations this month.

The letter, spearheaded by China, demands that COVID-19 vaccines be treated as a global public good for health, arguing that richer countries should not be allowed to stockpile their resources while poorer countries go without.

“The pandemic knows no borders,” the letter says in part. “The only solution lies in global solidarity, unity and multilateral cooperation. ... At this critical time, it is crucial to step up our joint efforts to leave no one behind.”

The concept of vaccine nationalism refers to the signed agreements a number of countries made with the vaccine manufacturers before the shots became available to the general public, allowing them to buy up large amounts, which in turn makes the initial supply of vaccines unaffordable and inaccessible to poorer countries.

Zhang Jun L, China's permanent representative to the United Nations, delivers a speech on behalf of 75 countries to the General Debate of the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, Oct. 1, 2021. (Photo by Wang Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Zhang Jun, China's permanent representative to the United Nations, speaking at the U.N. General Assembly on Oct. 1. (Wang Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images)

More than 18 months into the pandemic, while some wealthy nations appear headed toward pre-pandemic normals, many cash-strapped countries remain ravaged for resources.

Mexico, Egypt and North Korea were among the countries that signed the joint letter. Noticeably absent were the U.S., the U.K. and Canada.

The letter outlines deep concerns regarding a lack of vaccine equity for poorer countries, which, it argues, only exacerbates already prevalent issues of poverty and hunger, trade and more.

Sixty-five percent of the population of high-income countries had received at least one vaccine shot as of Sept. 9, while just 2 percent of the population of low-income countries had received at least one dose, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

This summer the European Union secured 900 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine and reserved an option to double this amount by 2023. Even without exercising that option, the EU could give all its citizens at least six shots each. The U.S. has secured more than a billion shots, enough to inoculate every American at least five times. Meanwhile, residents of many smaller and poorer nations have yet to receive a single dose.

Vaccination rates in countries like Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo remain less than 1 percent, according to Reuters tracking data.

A medical worker administers a dose of COVID-19 vaccine for a man in Goma, northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo DRC, on Oct. 8, 2021. (Photo by Zanem/Xinhua via Getty Images)
A medical worker administers a dose of COVID-19 vaccine for a man in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on Oct. 8. (Zanem/Xinhua via Getty Images)

The disparity in vaccination rates also comes with a hefty price tag. A National Bureau of Economic Research study determined that uneven distribution of the vaccine could cost upwards of $3.8 trillion globally, while vaccinating the world’s most vulnerable fifth of the population would cost less than $40 billion.

Aaditya Mattoo, World Bank chief economist for the East Asia and Pacific region, expressed disappointment in the current rollout.

"I am a trade economist and all my life, I believed that production should happen where it is most efficient and then be distributed to where there is greatest need," Mattoo told the Manila Times last week. "But this crisis has disappointed me because instead of countries pursuing a globally optimal cooperative strategy, there has been what we call vaccine nationalism.”

Poor and middle-class countries have accrued enough vaccines through 2023 to vaccinate at most half their populations, while the majority of rich countries have secured more than 350 percent of the doses needed for their populations, according to UNICEF data.

Worldwide access has faltered, but attempts have been made to fill the gap. Smaller countries that depend on the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, or COVAX — an international initiative seeking to ensure equitable access to vaccines — have made little progress.

COVAX was formed in April 2020 as a way for high-income countries and corporations to pay for vaccine access to the 92 poorest countries. The program initially appeared to run smoothly as vaccine distributions began in late February, with almost every country in the world signing up. But as the months went on, supply chains slowed and COVAX could not financially compete with richer countries that were buying up market share.

An analysis by Global Justice Now revealed that more than 82 percent of COVID-19 vaccines have been purchased by the wealthiest countries, accounting for just 14 percent of the world population. The long-term effects of this could be dire.

A member of the public receives a Pfizer Covid vaccination at an NHS walk-up vaccination unit outside the village hall on September 25, 2021 in the village of Summercourt, near Newquay, Cornwall, United Kingdom. (Photo by Hugh Hastings/Getty Images)
A man receives a COVID-19 vaccination in the village of Summercourt, England, on Sept. 25. (Hugh Hastings/Getty Images)

Infectious disease expert Dr. Adeeba Kamarulzaman of Malaysia says the longer people remain unvaccinated, the more potential there is for the virus to mutate into an even more dangerous strain.

“I hope the world doesn’t live to regret the nationalism that we are practicing,” Kamarulzaman said during a webinar last week.

A Princeton University and McGill University study published in August in the journal Science also revealed that vaccine nationalism likely has a direct correlation to the transmission of the virus.

“Unequal vaccine allocation will result in sustained transmission and increased case numbers in regions with low vaccine availability and thus to a higher associated clinical burden compared with a vaccinated population,” the study found in part. “Coordinated vaccination campaigns across the world, combined with improved surveillance and appropriate nonpharmaceutical interventions to prevent case importation, are imperative.”

Leaders from several developing countries in attendance at the United Nations General Assembly last month criticized wealthy countries for enabling COVID variants to emerge because of their selfishness.

“Rich countries hoard lifesaving vaccines, while poor nations wait for trickles,” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said at the conference. “They now talk of booster shots, while developing countries consider half doses just to get by. This is shocking beyond belief and must be condemned for what it is — a selfish act that can neither be justified rationally nor morally.”

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres lambasted the entire world on vaccine inequity, calling it an “obscenity” and saying, “We are getting an F in ethics.”

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly at UN Headquarters on September 21, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz-Pool/Getty Images)
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the General Assembly on Sept. 21. (Eduardo Munoz-Pool/Getty Images)

The World Health Organization has set an ambitious goal to have 40 percent of the world vaccinated by the end of the year and 70 percent by the middle of 2022. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 3.75 billion people worldwide have received a dose of vaccine, accounting for just under 49 percent of the global population, according to the New York Times tracker. But more than 50 countries missed the WHO’s September target of 10 percent, with most of them located in Africa, whose overall vaccination rate remains under 5 percent.

Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo told the U.N. General Assembly last month that Africa is the continent hardest hit by vaccine nationalism — 900 million Africans need to get the vaccine in order for the continent to reach the 70 percent threshold, with very little help in sight.

President Biden has called this moment an “all-hands-on-deck crisis,” pushing for all countries to reach a 70 percent vaccination rate by the fall of 2022. To do its part, the U.S. last month pledged to buy more than 500 million vaccine doses for other countries, which will bring the total number of donations promised by the U.S. to more than 1 billion.

"We're not going to solve this crisis with half-measures or middle-of-the-road ambitions. We need to go big," Biden said at a virtual summit on the pandemic last month.

But as many rich nations administer booster shots to the elderly and immunocompromised, many critics question if the U.S. is doing enough to encourage equity on the world stage.

“The more people that are vaccinated, the less likely new variants will evolve,” Avery August, a Cornell University immunologist, told Yahoo News. “However, all of these examples highlight the crucial lack of access lower-income countries have to the most cutting-edge medicines and vaccines. If these countries do not have the financial resources, or the scientific infrastructure, to participate in the development of these vaccines, they tend to be left out of the benefits, or at the very least are the last in line to receive the benefits.”

Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine is pictured at Rady Children's Hospital before it's placed back in the refrigerator in San Diego, California on December 15, 2020. (Photo by ARIANA DREHSLER/AFP via Getty Images)
Bottles of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine. (Ariana Drehsler/AFP via Getty Images)

While many poorer countries push for access to vaccines, richer countries continue to vaccinate thousands each day.

More than 216 million Americans, or 65 percent of the U.S. population, have had at least one dose of a vaccine, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just over 56 percent of the country is fully vaccinated. Similarly, in Canada, 71 percent of the population has been inoculated at least once.

While critics fault countries like the U.S. and the U.K. for stockpiling resources, others say a collective approach needs to take place to help those in need.

Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and a public health professor at George Washington University, told Yahoo News it’s a “false choice” to argue that the U.S. should stop giving out booster shots in order to help other countries.

“We need to scale up the manufacturing of doses around the world,” Wen said. “We need to be working with other entities to increase distribution systems for lower-income countries. But at the same time, we cannot deny Americans, including American children, including American adults, the ability to get an additional layer of protection.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images


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