As the world enters the third year of the pandemic, we are faced with new realities and reoccurring themes centered around global health and global equity. For the last two years, countries have raced to get their populations fully vaccinated and protected from the worst health aspects of COVID-19. Vaccine distribution has been a huge topic of discussion across many diplomatic platforms and has raised concerns about “vaccine hoarding”, or the more technical term, vaccine nationalism.
What is Vaccine Nationalism?
Although there are many definitions for the term, vaccine nationalism can be summarized as “when governments sign deals with pharmaceutical companies for the supply of vaccines for their own citizens and prioritizing the same before that of other countries.” These nations often push to get access first, and inevitably end up stifling global health recovery and global economic growth.
When vaccines for COVID-19 were first ready for purchase and distribution, high-income countries like Canada and the United Kingdom quickly acquired a large portion of the global supply. These countries purchased enough vaccines that would vaccinate their entire populations several times over. Yet, many middle to low income countries were unable to secure just enough to vaccinate the most vulnerable of their populations. While rich nations like Canada and the UK were able to begin discussions about administering third doses, only about “1.3% of people in low-income countries” had received a first dose. The World Health Organization (WHO) had originally set a goal for all countries to vaccinate at least 10% of their populations by the end of September, 2021. However, due to various displays of vaccine nationalism, about 56 countries were “effectively excluded from the global vaccine marketplace” and failed to reach the target of 10%. In addition to this, because these large purchases resulted in low global supply, the prices of the vaccines unavoidably increased, and put middle to low-income countries in more jeopardy, slowing down their overall health and economic recovery during this pandemic.
Why is Vaccine Equity Important?
Another aspect that many don’t consider is that COVID-19 is not a respecter of boarders. It is globally known that the virus has produced and continues to produce multiple variants. In reference to Dr. Angela K. Shen, a visiting scientist at the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, as these variants spread from country to country, the occurrence of vaccine nationalism “only helps the virus propagate.” In her interview with the Global Citizen, she states that, “in order for a vaccine to work, you need most of society to be protected — and that protection happens when you get everyone vaccinated. So you want to roll this out to everyone because, inherently, that’s how you protect everyone collectively.”
In a press conference at the WHO’s annual Executive Board meeting, Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, explaines that the mentality of vaccine nationalism puts our world on the brink of “catastrophic moral failure.” He emphasized the need for equitable distribution, and pointed out some of the dire consequences that can result when distribution isn’t equitable.
So if vaccine nationalism is a problem, and vaccine equity is the solution, how can we achieve it?
According to the World Health Organization, there are enough doses of vaccines to drive down transmission and reduce collective risk, if the vaccines are prioritized to the populations that need them the most. One the biggest ways we can promote vaccine equity and prevent vaccine nationalism is by getting rid of systems that base vaccine allocation on a country’s purchasing power. Initiatives like the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility, also known as COVAX, are global collaborations that have been created by various organizations in order to secure at least 2 billion doses and “ensure equitable access for 92 low- and middle-income countries.”
Instead of allocation systems based on purchasing power, having systems that prioritize distribution based on the highest burden of COVID-19 hospitalization or death, can help ensure that the most vulnerable countries with vulnerable populations are not being left behind. It is also important for high-income countries like Canada and the UK to share unused and excess vaccine supplies with nations that still do not have enough. Re-distributing these vaccines ensures that countries who are still waiting to purchase supplies, are not left stranded, and it can also help reduce the economic burden on middle to low countries as they navigate through the financial repercussions of the pandemic.
Vaccine nationalism is a problem, and vaccine equity is a solution, however, it is not an easy one and requires collaboration and cooperation on all levels. There is still much work to be done, but there are initiatives being taken all around the world to ensure that everybody’s vaccine needs are addressed appropriately and in a timely manner.
Together we can make an impact on the health of the nations and the generations to come.
The mission of WHEF is to increase accessibility to medications and supplies for healthcare facilities in Guatemala and Grenada. If you are interested in hearing more about the work we are doing, or in connecting with us, you can visit our website, check out our instagram or facebook, or sign up to receive our newletters. If you would like to support us in our work, please donate here.