‘Vaccine nationalism’ has begun – but we are not safe until we are all safe

People in the most vulnerable parts of the world also deserve to be protected from Covid-19, a global pandemic needs a global effort

Wendy Chamberlain
Monday 23 November 2020 13:39
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Bill Gates worries of dysfunctional Covid-19 vaccine distribution

Another day, another Covid-19 vaccine announcement.

This week gone, it was the Moderna vaccine which offered a tantalising glimmer of hope – with its initial stage three clinical trials reporting a 94.5 per cent efficacy rate, a stunning result (although caveats apply).

Just as we started to catch a glimpse of a Covid-free summer in 2021, however, we were administered a hard dose of reality. The UK government had, at the time of the announcement, failed to procure the vaccine.  

There was to be better news by the end of the day – that the UK government had now secured five million doses, rolling out from Spring 2021. And just two days later, Pfizer announced that its vaccine was even more efficacious than it thought, importantly protecting the elderly just as well as the young.

But we must not forget that feeling many of us experienced on Monday – that we had lost out. That a Covid-free future might be in sight, but for somebody else, in another part of the world. Unfortunately, that is the reality that billions of people across the globe face, through 2021 and into 2022.

Each company producing a vaccine has a limited supply available, especially to start with. It’s quickly snapped up, inevitably by the wealthiest countries. So while we might be on the verge of a vaccine roll-out, many countries have simply been crowded out.

In the UK we were incredibly lucky – we are the highest per capita buyer of potential Covid-19 vaccine doses in the world, with access to 10 per cent of global supply of leading vaccine candidates (even though we are less than 1 per cent of the world’s population). But right now, it is a zero-sum game. Every dose that we buy means a dose deprived from some other country.

This is a real problem. There are strong humanitarian reasons for making sure people in the most vulnerable parts of the world are protected from Covid-19. But it’s also basic science – Covid-19 does not respect global borders. We are not safe until we are all safe.

Nor are the problems limited to supply of the vaccine. There are huge issues accessing treatments where they are available. The Pfizer vaccine is a case in point. As has been well documented, it has to be kept in cold storage at -70C. Matt Hancock said that rolling out the Pfizer vaccine will prove a “colossal effort” in the UK, because of the challenge of storage. So it is going to be even harder to manage in the most vulnerable parts of the world.

The other problem is cost. The Moderna vaccines are priced at $50 (£38) to $60 (£45) for a two-course treatment, which makes vaccinating an entire population a hugely expensive course of action.

The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is being produced on a not-for-profit basis during the pandemic, meaning countries can secure access for $3 (£2.25) to $4 (£3) per dose. This is much more promising – but there is a concern that from July 2021, AstraZeneca reportedly has the ability to start charging what they want for the vaccine, apparently because that’s when it has been determined that we will no longer be in the pandemic stage of the virus. But that’s exactly the time at which countries who are not first in line will be looking to acquire doses – and those countries are invariably the ones which do not have the same ability to pay.

So we need more transparency when it comes to Covid-19 research and development – there are clear questions to be answered. And we need to start treating Covid-19 treatments as the global public goods they are. That means that where public money has been used to fund a vaccine, patents should be relaxed and technologies must be made more widely available.

One important step that the UK government can take is by making a commitment that if we as a nation find ourselves with a surplus of coronavirus doses, these are diverted to the places where they are needed most.

Finally, we need greater international co-operation. South Africa and India proposed at the World Trade Organisation that all intellectual property monopolies relating to Covid-19 tools, medicines and vaccines should be waived. We are in exceptional circumstances – the government needs to be fully engaging with these ideas.

This is a global pandemic – now is the time for a truly global effort to eradicate Covid-19.

Wendy Chamberlain is the Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife

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