WORLD / CROSS-BORDERS
White-hot race on vaccine distribution breeds 'vaccinationalism'
Published: Jan 28, 2021 01:37 AM

Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccine. Photo: VCG


Given concerns that wealthy states are fueling a gap in COVID-19 vaccine access around the world, rich states, which are jostling for early jabs, are urged to share, not hoard, at the virtual Davos Agenda 2021 summit of global leaders on Tuesday. 

Leaders of many countries, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, urged against a vaccine race between richer countries. Brussels and London tossed threats and accusations against each other over vaccine scarcity after AstraZeneca reduced its promised supply due to production limits. 

Tensions raised over delayed deliveries and broken promises raised memories of the race for life-saving masks in early 2020.

Some developed countries including the US, Britain, Canada reserved doses far outnumber their populations, while many poorer countries suffered a huge shortage or no doses at all.

Business insiders and Chinese vaccine producers, told the Global Times that bilateral deals are still dominant with many purchasers coming to Chinese vaccine manufactures directly. 

"Considering the billions of doses needed, and the risk of falling at the back of a very long line for Western vaccines, the appeal of the Chinese vaccines is apparent," Taimur Baig, chief economist and managing director at DBS Group Research, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

Experts warned the "me-first" mindset of some countries may hike vaccine prices, encourage hoarding and then limit others' ability to make timely purchase. They worry that unfair distribution of vaccines may heighten the economic crisis battering the world.

Widen gap

Some EU leaders have accused AstraZeneca of prioritizing the more costly vaccine to countries outside the EU. The EU then issued a "transparency mechanism" that required companies to report their vaccine exports to the EU.

Similarly, delays in US giant's Pfizer's vaccine shipments frustrated and angered Europe and Canada, even though they are the most secure countries with the vaccine preorders, according to discussions at Davos.

Rich nations including the US and its allies including Israel, Canada and Britain remain at the front of the queue for vaccines. 

The Global Times noticed that high-income countries have secured at least 85 percent of Pfizer's vaccine and all of Moderna's.

Research suggests rich countries - 27 EU members together with five other rich countries -- have secured over 50 percent of global doses, while they make up no more than 15 percent of the world's population. The EU has enough doses to vaccinate its people 2.8 times, and Canada has about five times more than it needs, if each person needs two doses, according to a Global Times calculation on vaccine contracts tracked by Duke University.

The US has snapped up 2,600 million doses, nearly a quarter of the world's supply so far - to cover 396 percent of its population.

"The high-income countries have gotten to the front of the line and cleared the shelves," the New York Times reported citing Andrea Taylor, a Duke researcher who is studying the contracts.

16% of the world’s population has reserved 60% of the world’s vaccines. How will unequal access to vaccines affect the global economy and delay the end of the pandemic? Graphic: Xu Zihe, Feng Qingyin/GT


The US' means of achieving "priority" are well understood - to finance vaccine R&D of the most promising manufacturers from very beginning, the US was given priority in vaccine accessibility. 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa lashed out at "vaccine nationalism," accusing rich nations of bulk-buying the vaccines and urged them to release excess doses for poorer nations, warning that unfair distribution will prolong the COVID-19 crisis, according to discussions at a Davos meeting on Tuesday.

He said the best way to do that was to vaccinate some people in all countries rather than all people in some countries.

A research report by Duke Global Health Innovation Center suggested that most people in low-income countries will have to wait until 2024 for an injection if what experts are calling "vaccinationalism" continues among rich countries.

Rich countries have preordered enough doses to vaccinate the entire world's populations nearly three times, Global Times analysis shows according to current data, even as many African countries have not sourced any doses. South Africa is one of those being left behind, and facing domestic criticism for failing to grab the shots.

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said over 39 million vaccine doses had been given in 49 richer states - but there is one poor nation that has received only 25 doses.

Observers warned that uneven distribution may lead to some countries suffer disruptive supply chains and a stagnating economy, while others with access to vaccines recover quickly, causing a widening of the economic gap. 

"Pandemics are global in nature, and a failure to mitigate the disease in the poor countries will prolong the spread and do additional grave damage to more advanced economies," Stephen Roach, a senior fellow at Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

A study released by US non-profit organization the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that failure to distribute vaccines to the poorest countries would impose a $9-trillion loss on the world economy, with rich nations shouldering half of that, Business Day, a national daily newspaper in South Africa, reported.

At least four African countries have given its citizens Chinese vaccines or secured vaccines from Chinese developers as of Tuesday, with talks on cooperation underway in more countries. Despite the challenges involved, observers noted that China is striving to help the continent fill the immunity gap rather than hoard doses. 

So far, none of the main, Western vaccines has yet been administered in Africa, almost two months after the first doses were rolled out in Europe, as BBC reported.

Gray channels emerge

One of China's mainstream vaccine producer which preferred not to be named, told the Global Times that bilateral orders of COVID-19 vaccines still dominate, as many governments of developing countries who seek for a more affordable, easier transported vaccine came to the Chinese producers. However, China's vaccine export rules require government approval, leaving much of the demand not yet satisfied.

As the fight for vaccines heats up, black ways and scalpers are born.

Pfizer's and Moderna's vaccines sell at staggering prices on the dark web, media reported. Japanese media also revealed that vaccines from China's Sinopharm were illegally smuggled into Japan for local dignitaries. 

A source close to Sinopharm told the Global Times that overseas Chinese had approached employees of Sinopharm's subsidiaries, asking them to help with vaccine purchases at a price per dose three times normal. The source said such scalpers are also common in the vaccine industry in many other countries including the Southeast Asia and Middle East countries.

Appeal for multilateralism 

The WHO has urged an end to bilateral vaccine deals, saying the world faces a "catastrophic moral failure" because of unequal COVID-19 vaccine policies. Tedros called for a full commitment to the global vaccine-sharing mechanism COVAX, which is scheduled to start small-scale deliveries in February. 

The Gavi, a COVAX coordinator and alliance dedicated to giving vaccines to developing countries, said it plans to provide 150 million doses by the end of March. It had raised $6 billion of the $7 billion that it has sought in 2021 to help finance deliveries to 92 developing nations.

Chinese COVID-19 vaccine developers - Sinovac, Sinopharm and CanSinoBio - have submitted applications to join the WHO's COVAX plan. But a representative of Sinovac told the Global Times that application approval needs time as the WHO has to first inspect the firm's vaccine production line and go through a rigorous review and assessment before getting WHO's prequalification, as requested by WHO's Emergency Use List (EUL). 

Industry insiders told the Global Times that COVAX's funding and vaccine shortage remains a concern, as many of the pre-ordered vaccines may not arrive on time.

Feng Duojia, president of the China Vaccine Industry Association, noted that currently the most urgent problem is a shortage of vaccines, if not unfair allocation. 

The world may need about 10 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines. As global producers go into full production, the demand may be met by the end of 2021, Feng predicted. 

Tao Lina, a Shanghai-based vaccine expert, said that the WHO should consider drafting guidelines on doses on quantity for each country based on their population, and guide them to share excessive ones to poorer countries. "Unfortunately, the WHO is an agency that provides professional advice, not mandatory oversight."

"It's not necessary for a country to buy so many doses at once as it will take months to administer them, the vaccines sitting in stockpiles, while other countries struggling to find their first shots for even their key groups, Tao said.


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