The benefits of vaccination aren’t shared equally around the globe


graphic by Om Patel

Connor Fondrevay-Bedell, Columnist

Ever since I was little, I’ve had a deadly fear of needles. Visits to the doctor’s office were traumatizing, with memories of my fingers being pricked haunting me. Flu season was my own personal nightmare with constant reminders to get my flu shot. 

The past year has changed all of that. 

Instead of dread hanging over the thought of getting a Covid-19 vaccine, I felt excitement. I found myself eagerly counting down the days until my appointment. While I sat in the pharmacy waiting for my name to be called, I considered how important this moment was. Since last March the thought of a vaccine being discovered and bringing all of this to an end was all that kept me going. As I felt a slight pinch from the needle, I breathed my first sigh of relief in a year. 

I would no longer have to mentally contact trace every time someone I knew tested positive or was exposed. I could now wake up each day and no longer worry if this would be the day I finally caught it. I could leave behind the paranoia about every object I had touched in public. I would be protected from the virus, but I would also be protected from a constant state of panic. 

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to get vaccinated, but I know that far too many people are not given the option. Wealthier countries such as the United States and those in the European Union have been able to buy large quantities of vaccines from manufacturers, while poorer countries are unable to compete. For instance, with all the orders the United States has placed for vaccines, it would be able to vaccinate its entire adult population three times over, according to a new study titled Reducing Global COVID Vaccine Shortages: New Research and Recommendations for US Leadership, published April 15 by Duke University. The explanation for these extra purchases is that governments were not sure which vaccine would prove effective, so they placed their bets on multiple candidates and ended up ordering more vaccines than they needed. 

According to UNICEF, wealthier countries such as the U.K. and the United States had an eight-month head start on signing deals. In comparison, the countries that are falling behind are concentrated in the global south, with Africa containing many countries that haven’t administered a single dose. 

This was only possible with a significant wealth disparity, leaving those in the developing world to struggle. Poorer countries could not cut the same beneficial deals and are struggling to catch up. While wealthier countries formed COVAX, an organization that would explicitly help poorer countries obtain vaccines, it still will not be enough to close the gap quickly. 

Of the roughly 1.4 billion doses administered worldwide, 83 percent have gone to the richest countries, according to Our World in Data, an organization devoted to studying and tracking global poverty and inequality. The organization has also found that while North America has administered 45 doses for every 100 people, Africa has administered 1.3 doses for every 100 people. Wealthier and whiter nations are racing ahead, and the disparity could worsen. 

India popped up in headlines in mid-April as reports of worsening conditions and skyrocketing cases reached the global community. Since April 20 they recorded over 300,000 cases daily, while their health care system suffers a shortage of oxygen and bed capacity for patients, according to data collected by the New York Times

In an attempt to help other countries struggling with containing the virus, India, along with South Africa, introduced a proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily waive intellectual property (IP) rights for vaccine producers. If approved, it would allow countries to avoid legal barriers to producing vaccines and treatments. This would permit developing countries to gain access to the formulas for vaccines, making cheaper and generic vaccines available. Yet, the waiver is opposed by the same countries that have given themselves an advantage: wealthy European countries. 

On May 6 the German government released a statement in opposition to the waiver, reasoning that waiving intellectual property rights would stifle competition in industry and harm innovation. They blamed vaccine issues on poor distribution and supply chains and said the global community should shift focus away from the intellectual property discussion. The effort to prevent the waiver comes off more as a move to protect industry profits than to help people. In fact, when more countries announced their support for the waiver, stock prices for the producers of Pfizer, Moderna, and Novavax vaccines dropped.

Two separate announcements from President Biden show efforts to solve both problems. He committed the United States to freeing up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to countries in need, in a statement released on April 26. In addition to the vaccines the Biden administration committed to sending India rapid testing kits, ventilators and personal protective equipment to help with managing the skyrocketing case count.

The second announcement came on May 5, when he reversed the U.S position on India’s waiver and came out in support of the initiative. Both developments are important steps to equalize distribution and ensure all countries have access to vaccines. But without support from important allies such as Germany, the U.K. and Japan, the waiver will continue to stall. It is vital that the Biden administration works with these countries to gain their support and allow revisions to IP rights. 

At the same time, it is important for Biden to strengthen the global supply network, and his move to free up 60 million doses is a step in the right direction. As the United States makes significant progress on vaccinating its own citizens, it must be equally committed to ensuring there is a functioning distribution system and adequate supplies for countries to access vaccines and administer them. 

The past year has shown the cruelty of Covid-19 and it is the moral obligation of powerful countries such as the United States to aid struggling countries when they need it most.