World must cooperate on vaccines if COVID-19 is to be defeated

World must cooperate on vaccines if COVID-19 is to be defeated

World must cooperate on vaccines if COVID-19 is to be defeated
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With a 90-year-old British grandmother last week becoming the first person in the world to receive a jab of an approved vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the rollout of vaccines against the worst pandemic in more than a century has begun.

In many ways, the rapidity with which the first vaccine — made jointly by US pharma giant Pfizer and German firm BioNTech — has been developed, tested clinically and then on humans, and even manufactured after expedited approvals from health regulators, is a big surprise. Most vaccines take years to develop and the rollout at a global level even longer. However, in the face of a pandemic that has unnerved most nations and their political leaders, as well as devastating the world economy and shutting down almost the entire planet in an unprecedented fashion, the process has been dramatically compressed.

Pfizer was first off the block, with many others following, including Oxford University and British-Swedish pharma company AstraZeneca, Russia’s Sputnik V, and with Chinese and Indian firms catching up. It has been predicted that a billion doses could be available by March, with another couple of billion coming during 2021, should the need arise.

However, now that people are being vaccinated, it is critical that the distribution of vaccines be made equitable, rather than driven by the clout the richer nations have. The world’s richest countries, notably the US, UK, EU member states and other large countries like Russia and China, have already ordered more than a billion doses from the various manufacturers to ensure that their populations are the first to be vaccinated.

This is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today. The pandemic has certainly extracted a heavy toll from the rich countries, with the US registering the most cases and also the most deaths at more than 300,000. The EU accounts for a similar number of deaths. These countries’ economies have also been brutally hurt by the pandemic and many of their societies are now in conflict, either with the government or within themselves. It is thus tempting for any leader to get hold of the vaccine and offer it as redemption to the people. It may help boost the leader’s ratings and perhaps curb the numbers of deaths and infections there. But this would be a very short-sighted and nearly self-defeating strategy for any leader to adopt.

It is critical that the distribution of vaccines be made equitable, rather than driven by the clout the richer nations have

Ranvir S. Nayar

Ever since the development of the vaccines began early this year, many scientists, as well as institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO), have called for the equitable distribution of vaccines and the healthcare infrastructure needed to combat the virus.

Several studies by leading universities and research institutes have modeled the outcomes if the rich nations corner large quantities of the vaccines and stockpile them. They say that hoarding of the vaccines would bring negligible gains for the rich nations, while having a catastrophic impact on poor nations. In one scenario, according to GAVI, the global vaccine alliance, a study showed that if about 50 high-income countries monopolized the first 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine that had 80 percent efficacy, then 33 percent of deaths could be averted globally. However, if the same vaccine was distributed equitably, based on the population size of each country, then as many as 61 percent of deaths could be prevented.

The researchers also found that the modest gains for high-income countries from monopolizing the vaccines would be far less significant than the devastating losses low-income countries would suffer if the rich nations didn’t cooperate. It found that, if Western Europe stockpiled doses, it would avert 74 percent of deaths there, while a cooperative strategy would prevent 55 percent. By contrast, a cooperative Europe would lead to the prevention of 93 percent of deaths in Western Africa and 62 percent in Southeast Asia.

Richer countries must not only agree to share the vaccines, but also keep a vigilant eye on the prices their pharmaceutical companies charge for supplying the poorer nations. American pharma companies Pfizer and Moderna have set their target prices extremely high, with a total vaccine cost of about $40. By contrast, Oxford-AstraZeneca has pitched a price as low as $3 per dose.

In this context, the initiative led by the WHO to develop the Covax initiative specifically for poorer countries is welcome. It has already reserved 200 million doses, which will be available next year. Its target is to provide 2 billion doses by the end of 2021 to the 186 states that have joined the alliance.

Even for developed nations, the cost of vaccination is a challenge, as it is expected, at least initially, to be met by government health budgets, which are already severely stretched due to the economic shock of the pandemic. For developing nations, the challenge is even bigger. Not only must they find the resources to pay for the vaccines, but they also have to build the infrastructure needed to carry out mass vaccinations. This requires an effective cold chain to store and transport the vaccines, as well as the necessary healthcare infrastructure and personnel to administer them to the population.

This can mostly only come with external assistance and without any financial obligations. If the world is to push COVID-19 back, if not totally eliminate it, then it needs to cooperate like it never has before in the history of humanity. Are our leaders of today, both in business and in government, up to the task?

*Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.

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