The Availability of the COVID-19 Vaccine: Not Allocated According to Need, but to Wealth

The Availability of the COVID-19 Vaccine: Not Allocated According to Need, but to Wealth

COVID-19 Vaccine Nationalism has led to the wealthiest countries consistently outbidding each other in a race for herd immunity. These countries are the only ones who have the power to now equalise the playing field.

By MK Hubbard

The effects of COVID on the health, mental wellbeing and livelihood of the UK has been extreme1. It is not immoral for us, the public, to look forward to the upcoming days where we will be vaccinated and can return to normal life.  But, in the desperate race for herd immunity, higher income countries such as the UK have been driving up the price of the vaccine to an extortionate level only they can afford. Governments protecting their citizens are not the problem: it is when these governments act as such whilst unnecessarily jeopardizing the lives of citizens in lower income countries. The question did not have to be ‘Who gets the vaccine first?’, but, ‘How can we all get the vaccine without further delay?’. This question indeed has a solution, so why are we not doing it?

Young people in the UK have begun to celebrate the government’s announcement that June 21st will be the date where our lives will hopefully go back to normal2. This date was given after the target of 15 million first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, to protect the 15 million top priority group individuals, was met two days earlier than expected in February. Assuming the current rate of vaccination is maintained, the UKs adult population of ~53 million will be covered by May 12th this year3

Considering what young people have experienced over the past year, their celebration of this date is understandable and intelligible. The direct health risks of COVID-19 to under 21s are relatively small, and yet for the protection of adult and vulnerable populations, young people have missed out on their education, developing friendships and relationships, and maturing outside the family home4. This protection is indeed vital to protect society as a whole, however, this does not invalidate the extreme sacrifices young people have made in order to protect others. It is hence entirely understandable why June 21st has given so much hope to so many people: this date has given us a light at the end of the tunnel.

It was the wealth of the UK Government which shone this light, through buying up stocks of the available vaccines in a bid to protect the nation5. However, whilst our wealth has allowed us to buy a way out, it has meanwhile reinforced the wealth divide across the world and jeopardized the health of poverty-stricken countries who simply cannot afford to match such a high price6.

Whilst high-income countries represent only 16% of the world’s population, they hold 60% of the COVID vaccines purchased so far. Many of these countries can cover their population several times over, with Canada currently having bought the stocks to vaccinate more than five times their population. It is forecast that whilst the current UK trajectory will vaccinate 100% of their adult population by May, only 27% of those living in poor and middle income countries will be vaccinated before the end of the year7.

This method has become known as vaccine nationalism, where a government signs an agreement with pharmaceutical manufacturers to supply their own populations with vaccines ahead of them being available for other countries8. This was a prudent move, as after the devastating death toll over the past year in the UK, millions of front line workers have already been offered their first dose of the vaccine due to such forward planning. 

A Government decision of this type, buying stocks to protect their country, is expected. It is also to be valued: ‘It is the first responsibility of government in a democratic society to protect their citizens and safeguard the lives of their citizens’9. However, it should not be a function of the Government to protect their citizens whilst simultaneously and unnecessarily jeopardizing the lives of countless citizens elsewhere. There was a method available to the government that would have protected national interests, whilst still ensuring that poorer countries were not pushed further down in the process. In other words, the question did not have to be ‘Who gets the vaccine first?’, but, ‘How can we all get the vaccine without further delay?’. 

In a race to outbid each other for vaccine supply, governments of high income countries have created a race for herd immunity fueled by their ever-increasing monetary bids. They have created “an immoral race towards the abyss”10. Higher income countries did not just have a head start for accumulating vaccines in this race, but they were the only ones who could meet the requirements to enter. They were the only ones capable of matching the wealth already flaunted by previous attempts to accumulate more and more vaccine doses.

It is the governments of these high income countries which have driven the price of vaccines up in an ever increasing trajectory. Research has shown that the price of the Pfizer and Moderna Vaccines at one point were treble the price per dose than originally stated. Reports also evidence that the AstraZeneca vaccines ordered by South Africa were double the price originally paid in Europe11. This clamour for vaccines at an affordable cost has also led many lower income countries to secure bilateral trade deals with pharmaceutical companies12. The increasing prevalence of these deals in ever desperate attempts to secure further vaccine stocks has also led to the possibility that pharmaceutical companies could use this political pressure to encourage countries to go with bilateral trade deals instead of other options. These deals are highly problematic, as they are extremely costly and not necessarily in the best long term interests of the countries in question. 

The price of the vaccines has been driven up extortionately by higher income countries, who will understandably pay what they can to secure all the vaccines needed for their citizens. But, they do not have to do this. The UK do not have to consistently drive up the price of the vaccine, but we could instead use our strong political standing to campaign for the transfer of vaccine technology across pharmaceutical companies. Availability of the vaccine should not generate such an extortionate and unnecessary profit; as companies should not be able to profit off a global pandemic at the expense of human lives. Governments should not enable such profit to accumulate. But they do. 

We should be pushing the Government to campaign for the distribution of vaccine technology to enable more vaccines to be created by more organisations: enabling for a higher rate of distribution13. Whilst nationalism in itself is a concept to be debated, a government protecting the lives of their own citizens is not necessarily the problem. It is only a problem when a government protects their own citizens at the unnecessary expense of citizens in lower income countries. 

The UK government can still uphold the goal for mass vaccination of the national population this year. However, they should be supporting other countries to do the same: by fighting for the availability of the vaccine technology on a larger scale.

The UK population have, to put it lightly, been through hell and back. The effects of COVID not just on health, but mental wellbeing, livelihood and poverty levels, has been extreme. It is not immoral for us, the public, to be excited for June 21st. The public should not be made to feel guilty. But we should make our government feel guilty. We should make them feel guilty that in the race for herd immunity, they brightened the light at the end of our tunnel by unnecessarily causing blackouts in vaccine availability in lower income countries.  

  4.   Snape, M. Viner, R. (2020). COVID-19 in Children and Young People. Science 370(6514) (pg 286-288)