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World can’t afford vaccine nationalism

A nurse wearing a face mask vaccinates a woman against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). Picture: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP

A nurse wearing a face mask vaccinates a woman against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). Picture: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP

Published Jan 29, 2021


It is morally reprehensible that some rich countries have acquired four times more Covid-19 vaccines than what their country need, while the UN Secretary-General says nine out of 10 people in poor countries will miss out on getting Covid vaccines this year.

Canada has acquired vaccine doses for more than 400% of its population, the UK for more than 295% of its population, and Australia for 269% of its population. Several wealthy countries have ordered most of the stocks of all leading vaccine candidates – enough to vaccinate their people several times over.

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As President Cyril Ramaphosa said at the Virtual Event of the World Economic Forum this week, “There is just no need for a country with 40 million people to acquire 160 million doses when the world needs access to those vaccines.”

The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi) estimates that a few countries have bought at least 800 million more vaccine doses than they need, with the option for another 1.4 billion. Gavi is looking to access the vaccines to distribute them equitably, whether they pay for them or are given them as donations.

Ramaphosa has said that an estimated 1.5 billion doses of vaccine are needed to immunise 60% of the African population. The Covid-19 African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team has attempted to secure vaccines but has been only "marginally successful”. The task team has secured 270 million doses and a further 600 million are expected from Covax, but the continent has 1.3 billion people.

India is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, producing 60% of the world’s vaccines, and India’s Minister for External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has said that India would do everything possible to make vaccines affordable and accessible to everyone. New Delhi says it will ensure regular vaccine supplies to partner nations, like South Africa, in the coming months.

"India has prioritised South Africa in terms of the export of vaccines. Immediate approvals for the commercial export were given, which not only speaks to the close strategic relations between India and South Africa, but also that India stands ready to help those countries most affected," Indian High Commissioner to South Africa Jaideep Sarkar has said.

India should be saluted for its efforts to ensure that vaccines are widely disseminated, and the fact it is donating vaccines to some of its neighbouring countries. South Africa will receive the first shipment of vaccines from India next week which will be prioritised for health and front-line workers. South Africa signed a purchase agreement with the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, which is bulk producing the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine.

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India has also been partnering with South Africa to secure exemption from intellectual property agreements for vaccines, a proposal that is facing opposition from developed countries, including the US and EU member states. South Africa and India launched an initiative for a general waiver for the duration of the pandemic to the World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement with regard to Covid-19 drugs and vaccines.

While there is a global health emergency, the WTO should suspend patents and copyrights to the life-saving drugs and vaccines, and members must be allowed to produce and export generics of the vaccines to meet global demand. The irony is that these efforts are being blocked by rich countries that have ordered more vaccines than they need. South Africa’s own patents legislation may allow the government to immediately implement measures to produce and import generics.

No country is an island and can think that it will be safe once its people are vaccinated, while other countries are unable to vaccinate theirs. The reality is that without a vaccine and the continued proliferation of Covid-19, the virus will mutate and continue to threaten the global population, leaving economic devastation in its wake. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that the failure to distribute vaccines to the poorest countries would impose a $9 trillion (about R138 trillion) loss on the world economy. The US, UK, and EU are forecast to lose around $119bn a year.

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As the president of the World Economic Forum Borge Brende has said, “We all know that Covid-19 anywhere is Covid-19 everywhere.” It has never been so urgent for the world to come together to collectively fight this scourge and for rich countries to shed their narrow nationalist impulses and instead collaborate to ensure that no country is left behind. According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the cost of supplying low income countries with vaccines is $25 billion. To put it in perspective, the US military budget is $686.1 billion.

* Ebrahim is Independent Media Group Foreign Editor.

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