Home OPINIONS Vaccine Inequality and the Continued Threat of COVID-19

Vaccine Inequality and the Continued Threat of COVID-19

After three anxious years, when the world was just beginning to sigh relief, a new wave of COVID-19 contagion again stuck the many parts of the world in the passing days of 2022. Emerging from its controversial zero-COVID policy, China experienced a widespread wave of the pandemic. And it was followed by reports of hundreds of new cases of coronavirus infection from South Korea, Japan, the United States and some other countries. This episode has simply confirmed the apprehension that the COVID-19 epidemic is still around us. Many experts have warned that as long as there are large numbers of unvaccinated people, new strains and variants may keep cropping up here and there, and some might prove dangerously contagious.
It’s a sad reality that the world community has failed to achieve targets of vaccinations, even though two and half years have passed since the first COVID-19 vaccine came into being. However, it could be said indisputably that lack of vaccine doses/resources is not the main reason for cases of failings in achieving the targets (of vaccinations).
Let’s first see the problem. The World Health Organization (WHO), in one of its reports this year, presented a worrisome picture of vaccine equity in the world. It reminded us that,
  • In 2021, WHO set the target for 70% global vaccination coverage by mid-2022
  • But as of June 2022, only 58 of 194 member States of WHO had reached the 70% target.
  • According to the report, among low-income countries, just 37% of healthcare workers had received a complete course of primary vaccination.
The WHO report also underlined that “the conditions to allow for all countries to achieve the global targets, meaning supply, technical support, and financial supply, are now in place…. For the first time since the pandemic began, the global supply of vaccines is not currently a binding constraint.”
Still, if large numbers of people in the global south are deprived of vaccination, then it must be asked: Why is this the case? One can find the answer to this question in the existing unequal structures of production and supply of preventive medicines. When the world was passing through the most dreadful days of the pandemic, Oxfam International revealed through its analysis that,
  • As of May 2021, people in the G-7 (organizations of rich countries) countries were 77 times more likely to have been vaccinated than those in the world’s poorest nations.
  • Around 28% of the 1.77 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine administered across the globe by May 2021 were provided in the G-7 nations. And the share of low-income countries was an abysmal 0.3% of total vaccinations.
Vaccine inequality exists despite that epidemic, and infectious disease experts cautioned that no one is safe until all are safe in the world. They have regularly underlined that if a certain percentage of people don’t develop antibodies to the COVID-19 virus, the source for new strains/variants would be alive, and danger would be lurking worldwide.
COVID-19 was undoubtedly not the first epidemic the world has encountered. Epidemics have been ravaging humanity for periods unknown. To the credit of modern science and international cooperation, human society developed knowledge about the dynamics of viruses/bacteria and learnt to make them ineffective. Vaccines as a preventive measure and modern diagnosis and treatment systems have saved millions of lives over the decades. But it’s a sad story that life-saving innovations of human minds are now being used for the purpose of profit.
It may sound ironic, but it is often the case that ‘intellectual properties’ are created by the direct or indirect contributions of many levels of society and public efforts. Still, once they are made, they are taken over by a particular company or private interests. As in the recent past, newly developed COVID-19 vaccines also went under monopoly pricing.
In the US, efforts to develop vaccines came into motion only when, under ‘Operation Warp Speed’, the US Government provided a large amount of funding to private pharmaceutical companies. It led to the rapid development and roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, but this model also ensured decent profits for private pharmaceutical companies.
This trend has proved problematic during COVID-19. When the pandemic was taking its toll on human lives and economies, the world over, big multinational pharmaceutical companies had no hesitation in making this distress an opportunity to earn maximum profit. In hindsight, we can argue that the governments generally failed to fulfil their proclaimed duty of serving the people at a crucial moment in human history. Instead of coming to the rescue of human lives, they came as protectors of corporate interests.
At a relatively late stage, the Joe Biden administration of the US supported the demand for waiver of patent rights on COVID vaccines. But the World Trade Organization (WTO) has only agreed to a partial waiver of patents for the COVID-19 vaccine. India and South Africa put forward this resolution, supported by more than 100 countries.
Another twist in the tale is no less intriguing. On the one hand, the Government of India took the lead in the campaign for the vaccine patent waiver on the global stage; on the other hand, it declined to use the provision of compulsory licensing that could have paved the way for the production of COVID-19 vaccines at a mass level in India. When a Government invokes the provision of a mandatory license, it grants permission to a person or company to make or sell an invention or product without seeking permission from the patent holder. The Government of India has the authority, under the Indian Patents Act 1970, to issue compulsory licensing. It was rightly asked, and even today, one fails to understand what stopped India from issuing compulsory licenses. Therefore, it can be argued with some conviction that governments act on behalf of corporate interests, not just in wealthy nations but also across the Global South.
This experience has left us on a very tricky wicket. After all the horror and losses we suffered due to the novel coronavirus, the system of monopoly pricing of vaccines and medicines is still going unchallenged. This can’t and should be allowed. Without challenging and changing this system, the world can’t be assured of a better and more secure future.
Views of the author are personal and do not necessarily represent the website’s views.
ActionAid India’s work with these communities is strongly focused on women and children. It was established with a vision to create a world without poverty, patriarchy and injustice in which every person enjoys the right to life with dignity. In 2006, ActionAid Association was registered as an Indian organisation governed by an independent General Assembly and a Governing Board. Together with supporters, communities, institutions and governments, they strive for equality, fraternity and liberty for all. It works in 24 states and two union territories, with several partners and allied organisations. ActionAid Association is part of a global federation and a full affiliate of ActionAid International, which has a presence in over 40 countries worldwide.