Equitable COVID-19 vaccine distribution is good sense, not altruismTuesday, March 02, 2021
MANY years ago, when I was venturing into coffee farming, I spent some time with the late Cecil Langford on his coffee farm up in the Blue Mountains trying to learn as much as I could about growing coffee. One of the important lessons he taught me was how to combat the dreaded berry borer beetle. It wasn't sufficient, he said, to take care of your own trees. You had to make sure that the farmers around you were doing the same with theirs and, if they had difficulty in doing so, it was in your interest to help them. Otherwise, your trees would never be safe.
It is a lesson that could aptly be applied to the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and the rat race that is taking place to secure supplies. At last count, a number of rich countries that account for 14 per cent of the world's population had snapped up 4.2 billion doses or 80 per cent of the vaccines expected to be produced this year by the three leading manufacturers — Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca.
Hogging the vaccines
It is acknowledged that these countries have experienced a disproportionately high level of infection, and one must understand that a country with millions of individuals infected and tens or hundreds of thousands who have already died must move aggressively to address its own crisis. However, it is painfully difficult to understand the rationale for some countries locking up supplies sufficient to provide as many as six doses to every one of its citizens.
It has been described euphemistically as “vaccine nationalism”. In plain language, however, it is hoarding, and could even lead to scalping. The World Health Organization has warned that it could result in a “catastrophic moral failure”.
It is a myopic view that is yet to be discarded that we can build a fence around ourselves within which we can then create the perfect environment for our well-being and prosperity, insulated from anything that might disrupt it. The coronavirus is not fazed by those fences.
We have already seen the emergence of mutations of the virus that are more contagious and possibly more resistant to the vaccines that have been developed. If rich countries, by their own selfishness, deprive poorer countries access to vaccines, there is the likelihood, if not certainty, that many more mutations will emerge and, as “viruses without borders”, will quickly migrate to these rich countries, extending the pandemic for years to come.
Beyond that, the quest for economic recovery in the rich countries will not materialise if the economies of poorer countries continue to be ravaged by the disease. These countries constitute a huge market for the machinery, automobiles, manufacturing inputs, and consumer goods that the rich countries produce. They are also a primary source of raw materials for the industrial plants of rich countries.
Global initiative inadequate
To be fair to these rich countries, they have made commitments to the COVAX facility, a global initiative designed to mitigate the inequitable distribution of vaccines, especially for countries that do not have the wherewithal to purchase them. However, equitable access cannot mean “me first and you next”.
Further, the global initiative, up to now, has been far from adequate. The targets set by COVAX would only see the vaccination of 20 per cent of the population of poorer countries — far below the 70-80 per cent required to achieve herd immunity.
Securing supplies amid the rat race, even if funds are available, is a huge challenge. Some countries trying to place orders for vaccines are being offered delivery dates way down in 2022. Despite the US$7.5 billion pledged by the G7 countries, COVAX is still short of its budget target. Availability will ultimately be determined by the number of vaccines that are approved and the capacity of the manufacturers to deliver.
Poorer countries cannot be left at the back of a long line. There is available capacity in places like India, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, and the Philippines that could ramp up production in a fairly short time, provided the developers are prepared to engage them.
The United States under President Joe Biden is once again providing global leadership. He has reversed Donald Trump's refusal to support COVAX and has pledged US$4 billion of the G7's US$7.5-billion commitment. He is expected to also reverse Trump's opposition to a US$500-billion expansion of the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) special drawing rights that would provide member countries access to special funding to cope with this emergency.
The current cost per dose of the vaccines varies widely, depending on the source, quantities, and discount pricing for bulk purchasers such as COVAX. It ranges from approximately $800 (AstraZeneca) to over $5,000 (Moderna). Jamaica needs to vaccinate over two million people if we are to achieve herd immunity coverage, and must therefore be prepared to spend several billion dollars even without including the cost of administering the vaccines. That is still a relatively small price to pay in order to end the curfews and lockdowns and enable businesses, schools, churches, entertainment, and sporting activities to return to normal. Other critical needs will have to make way for this emergency.
Poor countries with large populations will have it much harder, even with the benefit of the COVAX facility. Administering vaccines to 40 or 50 million people requires not just money but significant institutional capacity.
Despite all our anguish, Jamaica must be thankful. Our infection rate is one in 130 — half of the global figure of one in 68. In Canada, it is one in 43; UK, one in 16; and US, one in 12. Jamaicans must be disciplined, follow the appropriate guidelines, reject the anti-vaccine propaganda, and be prepared to take it as soon as it becomes available. If we do, we will get through this.
Bruce Golding is a former prime minister of Jamaica.
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