the westminster news
Published by the students of Westminster School
By Aleyna Baki ’21
During the summer, every piece of news about the development of COVID-19 vaccines gave birth to seeds of hope. Nov. 9, 2020, there was finally hope when Pfizer/BioNTech — a partnership between a small German firm led by first-generation Turkish immigrants and an American multinational firm headed by a Greek CEO — made history by presenting data showing that their vaccine was 95 percent effective. When it came to buying and distributing these vaccines, it became obvious that hope was only a luxury of the rich world.
Rich Man’s Vaccine
It is no secret that demand for vaccines vastly outstrips the supply. The fact that there is a shortage means there will be a competition to get them. It seems like rich countries — most of them being western nations — are competition winners. Yet, many rich countries are now being accused of “hoarding” these vaccines. Frankly, this is not an accusation but a solid fact. According to Oxfam, rich countries acquired enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over by the end of 2021. Oxfam data also indicates “rich countries representing just 14 percent of the world’s population have bought up 53 percent of all the most promising vaccines so far.”
Unsurprisingly, they bought 96% of Pfizer/BioNTech’s doses and all of Moderna’s doses. Yet, it is essential to point out that cold temperatures required for storing these vaccines make the distribution process in the developing world a little tricky as Moderna ($15 per dose) can only be stored 30 days at refrigerated 2-8°C conditions, and Pfizer/BioNTech ($20 per dose) can only last five days in the regular refrigerators, and 10 days in -70°C.
Poor Man’s Fight
The situations in the developing world are almost hopeless. People’s Vaccine Alliance, an organization whose members include Global Justice, Amnesty International and Oxfam, estimates nine out of 10 people in 70 lower-income countries will miss out on the COVID-19 vaccine. One solution might be to take advantage of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. It costs approximately $4 per dose and can be stored in a regular refrigerator for six months, but it is 70% effective, much lower than other vaccines. Oxford/AstraZeneca has promised to allocate 64% of their doses to people in developing nations. However, they can only reach 18% of the world’s population by the end of 2021, and most of Oxford/AstraZeneca doses are bought by rich developing countries like China and India.
One initiative for vaccinating the world’s developing nations is COVAX, which allows rich countries to subsidize the vaccines for poor ones, with the initial goal of inoculating 3% of the population in all member countries; they hope to extend this number to 20% by the end of the year. COVAX currently has $2 billion, but it is still $4.3 billion short of cash. Out of its 180 members, Russia is the only major economy; after former President Donald Trump refused to back the initiative. Consequently, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), warned that COVAX was already “at risk of failing to fulfill its potential.”
Don’t Love Thy Neighbor?
While the rich parts of the world are rolling out the vaccines, those living in the poorer parts can only watch and hope. All of this raises many ethical questions. Morally, no one should be prevented from getting a life-saving vaccine because of their residence or the amount of money in their pocket. Some critics argue the rich world needs more vaccines since the pandemic has not been as heavy on the developing world because of its younger population. However, the economic impact has fallen disproportionately on the developing world. According to the Gates Foundation, the pandemic has forced 37 million people into poverty in the developing world, most of them being women and girls. The population demographics argument is also illusionary when it comes to health consequences, as a Northeastern University study estimated the equitable distribution of the first two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines can avert 61% of deaths, compared to 33% of fatalities prevented if the vaccines are given to rich countries first.
Many thought the pandemic has taught us, in our globalized world, that no one can be safe without everyone being safe. I guess some rich nations did not learn their lesson, as they are pursuing domestic policies to fight a global pandemic, resulting in what U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls “vaccine nationalism,” which would be a great obstacle against international cooperation, openness and human rights. It is indeed hard for a politician to say to his/her electorate that they need to send the vaccines to health workers in Senegal because they need them more than their younger citizens. It might be challenging, but science and ethics tell us it is the only way.
Preventing a moral catastrophe might lie in increasing funding for COVAX; donations from countries like the U.S. can really make a difference. It can also be a test for the new U.S. president to show how much he is committed to solving the “global crises.” It is also heavily dependent on all pharmaceutical corporations and research institutions working on a vaccine sharing their scientific innovation, technological know-how and intellectual property with the rest of the world instead of keeping them a secret to boost profits. Rich countries should probably push them in this process, as the distribution of vaccines will color people’s perception of western order and democracy. Maybe, more importantly, it is a chance for the West to stand by the values they champion: human rights and equality.
It will be a disaster if people die from a disease that actually has a vaccine just because they have the wrong zip codes. Yet, the real test of equity might be when cheaper and easily distributable vaccines are available. But for now, people all around the developing world are asking, “Why are their lives worth more than ours?” That is undoubtedly a dangerous question to ask global justice, and this time we might not find an effective vaccine against populistic nationalism.