We Need a Better Game Plan to Reach Global Herd Immunity
The world is still vaccinating the few while neglecting the many.
The spread of COVID-19 has wreaked havoc, with countless lives lost, economies severely compromised, and health care systems put under unprecedented stress. It has also brought to light—and exacerbated—grave inequalities between the rich and poor countries of the world.
Mass vaccination could bring about economic recovery and resuscitate markets after the devastating effects of lockdown measures taken to mitigate the coronavirus’s spread. Yet vaccine distribution has also thrown a harsh light on the economic inequalities between developed and developing countries—not only but especially the nations of Africa. Richer countries have stockpiled vaccines, and some have procured enough to immunize their populations three times over; a report by One Campaign estimates that the European Union alone has secured 2.6 billion vaccines doses, which would allow the bloc to completely vaccinate every EU resident twice and still have almost 500 million doses left. Vaccinating the few while neglecting the many is not an effective game plan for stamping out the virus.
As the virus continues to mutate, vaccine nationalism is likely to make a bad situation worse. A survey by the People’s Vaccine Alliance highlighted epidemiologists’ concerns that new variants will render current vaccines ineffective: Nearly one-third of the 77 epidemiologists questioned believe this will happen in nine months or less, while two-thirds believed it would happen in less than a year. Already, we have seen that currently available vaccines may not be as effective against the more contagious beta mutation of the virus that is spreading rapidly across the African continent or the delta variant that has decimated India.
The international community must act in enlightened self-interest and adopt a multilateral strategy to conquer COVID-19 once and for all. Working together is a more effective strategy than stockpiling. Ensuring universal access to coronavirus vaccines and securing a worldwide threshold of immunity is the key to beating the virus and regaining stability around the globe. And in this regard, the world is badly lagging.
At the current pace of vaccine production, the Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that poorer economies, including most African countries, will not be able to achieve mass immunization before 2024—if ever. This could change if rich countries, such as the United States and the members of the European Union, support the temporary patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, a step that was first proposed to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2020 by India and South Africa. A waiver for intellectual property (IP) protections is supported by more than 100 countries. It would help scale up vaccine production, research, and the production of medical equipment in less wealthy countries.
It was encouraging to hear U.S. President Joe Biden express his support for the IP waiver, and the EU’s willingness to explore the waiver in WTO negotiations is a good step. But not all European countries support it, arguing that relaxing IP protections could be a disincentive for pharmaceutical companies to pursue further research. The questions remain: Will the IP waiver be agreed on and if so, how quickly? Will the pharmaceutical companies play ball? Will the world work together toward liberalizing and strengthening the vaccine supply chain to enable the participation of new producers, especially in developing countries such as South Africa, Kenya, and Morocco?
Of course, the production of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments is only part of the battle. Procurement and distribution are also key, yet the economic constraints introduced or exacerbated by the pandemic in the developing world add further obstacles to procurement and distribution efforts. First off, the price of the vaccines is higher for developing countries: Earlier this year, the South African National Department of Health confirmed that the country was quoted $5.25 per dose for AstraZeneca shots, which European countries have been getting for $2.16. These unfortunate practices drive inequity further. Why should African governments have to choose between saving lives and holding on to their national assets?
Many African countries simply cannot afford to procure vaccines. The pandemic has decimated government revenues from commodities and tourism, and it has required hefty public spending to keep economies afloat. Even before the pandemic, most African nations still had a long way to go toward meeting the Abuja Declaration target of allocating 15 percent of government budgets on health. Facing an economic crisis, how are African and other developing countries’ governments supposed to mobilize more funding for vaccination campaigns? Even COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), the multilateral effort to procure coronavirus vaccines for low- and middle-income countries, needs another $2 billion in addition to the $6 billion it has already raised in order to reach the goal of vaccinating at least 2 billion people in participating countries by the end of this year. Once again, the issue of affordability is key.
While rich countries are stockpiling vaccines, pressuring their manufacturers, and limiting supply through restrictive IP protections, COVAX’s rollout has only covered a marginal percentage of Africa’s 1.3 billion people so far. Africa’s and the rest of the developing world’s access to vaccines is largely dependent on the goodwill of the international community. By the end of this year, Africa is expected to receive approximately 600 million doses from COVAX. As developing countries wait, China and Russia see an opportunity for vaccine diplomacy and are using vaccine donations as a chance to strengthen economic and political relationships.
As the world starts working on a compromise on vaccine distribution, preparation is also key. African countries need to invest in their readiness for vaccine distribution. Management and logistics will be key to averting vaccines expiring before they can be used, as has happened in some countries. This may also demand that African governments partner with the private sector to tap into existing expertise in finance, distribution, and logistics—while governments focus on expediting regulatory approvals, planning, and coordination.
Collective leadership and international cooperation are imperative for ensuring sufficient production distribution of life-saving vaccines. Solidarity and multilateralism are the key for reaching worldwide herd immunity and overcoming COVID-19 once and for all.
Bogolo Kenewendo is a nonresident fellow at the Center for Global Development, the managing director of Kenewendo Advisory, the co-founder and chairperson of the Molaya Kgosi Trust, and a former Botswanan minister of investment, trade, and industry. Twitter: @BogoloKenewendo