A Disproportionate Healing
The United States and its citizens have a lot to be proud of these days. After 30 million Americans have had COVID-19 and 560,000 have lost their lives to it, good news is on the horizon. In fact, as of this week, over one third of adults in the country have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, while in the month of February, as announced by the U.S. Department of Labor two weeks ago, non-farm jobs — or non-agricultural positions — surged by 915,000, a result that was not expected nor projected by most economists and analysts. While we could say that these positive results are a direct consequence of state restrictions on the population, ranging from mask mandates and targeted businesses closures, much also has to do with the efficient vaccine rollout that the U.S. has been able to establish and keep steady throughout the past few months. Similar results have been seen in the United Kingdom, where over 31 million Britons have been fully or partially vaccinated, allowing Boris Johnson’s conservative government to ease COVID-19 restrictions throughout the country. On the other hand, the European Union’s efforts to try to get larger quantities of COVID-19 vaccines from producers at a lower price compared to the U.S. and the U.K. might have come at an even higher price. After a slow start in late December, EU/EEA member states have vaccinated around 82 million people, or 15% of the total target population, while major vaccine producers are prioritizing those countries that have paid more per single dose compared to those who have paid less. The Pfizer-BioNTech COVIDE-19 vaccine, for instance, is being paid $19.5/dose by the U.S. while Europe is paying slightly less at $18.3/dose.
While these numbers might sound reasonable, they do not reflect standard financial circumstances and why “vaccine nationalism” is too harsh a term in today’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. “Obviously,” as stated by Pfizer’s Chief Financial Officer Frank D’Amelio in an interview with Bank of America analyst Jason Zemansky, “we’re going to get more on price” once the market goes beyond the “[current] pandemic pricing environment.” As Mr. D’Amelio mentions, in fact, the typical cost per dose of a Pfizer vaccine is between $150 and $175, with some vaccines costing up to $200 per dose. The same argument applies to most other vaccine producers like Moderna and AstraZeneca. Current prices, as indicated in the contracts signed between countries and manufacturers, are simply reflecting the global crisis to which all nations are currently subject but are destined to change. While in a modest and more liberal global market environment, the formula to a COVID-19 vaccine — most of which were created thanks to important government funding — would be public. Instead, vaccine manufacturers prioritize profit simply because they’re allowed to, while non-affiliated vaccine plants that could begin production as soon as possible are at a halt and the richest nations in the globe still struggle with production and rollout plans. This is mostly because of the inherent struggle against COVID-19, a virus that has killed over 2.89 million people and infected over 10% of the global population (WHO estimate, October 2020), that countries with the most economic resources are being more successful in the battle over the little “antidotes” currently present on the market.
The Unfitting Nature of Vaccine Nationalism
So why is the term “vaccine nationalism” unsuitable in this context? Simply put, the behavior we’re seeing by the wealthiest nations has little to do with politics and much to do with both economic and social survival and the impact it is having on their populations. Despite this, as mentioned by multiple IGOs, going from the WHO to GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization), cooperation and fair vaccine distribution is key in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The most promising step toward this direction is COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access) whose aim, as expressed by the co-leading organization GAVI, is to “accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country.” So far, COVAX has been able to distribute 38 million vaccine doses to 98 participant countries and is planning on distributing over 2 billion doses by the end of 2021, aiming at covering the world’s total health workers population and other target groups. While successful in theory, this organization has its issues and relies on donations and contributions from wealthier nations. When nations choose a more autonomous approach toward lowering COVID-19 cases in their territories, the importance of subsidized and locally-produced vaccines becomes fundamental and seems to be one of the preferred directions being contemplated by world leaders.
So what is the future going to look like now that we’ve taken all this information into account? The impact of vaccinations in many communities is proving to be effective and safe as nations speed up their rollout plans. Now we need to work toward a homogeneous and fair global contribution toward initiatives like COVAX whose aims are simple and successful when carried out the right way. As the saying goes, and let’s stick to it, nobody is safe until everyone is safe.
The global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is one that must be fought unitarily and can become the crowning achievement of international cooperation and humanitarian responsibility.