Realpolitik of vaccine nationalism
While most poorer countries patiently waited for COVAX to be fully-functional, most richer countries, particularly the G-7 and EU members, decided to jump the queue and cut bilateral deals for their own citizens. Not to be left behind in the competition for public relations and profits, China, India and Russia, the three major vaccine producers outside Western Europe and the US, engaged in carefully orchestrated ‘vaccine diplomacy’ to bolster their image of solidarity with LMICs.
COVAX remained under-funded and unable to compete with the HICs that quickly reserved huge quantities of vaccines directly from the manufacturers, often exceeding their actual requirements. By August 2020, the Trump administration had signed seven bilateral deals with six companies for more than 800 million doses, enough to vaccinate 140% of its population.
The Biden administration substantially increased this. The EU was not far behind in reserving half a billion doses secured through two deals. The UK signed five bilateral deals for 270 million doses, equivalent to 225% of its population. Canada was at the head of the class reserving four times more vaccines than the total requirement for its population.
These bilateral deals severely undercut COVAX’s ambition of becoming the global coordinator of vaccine procurement, allocation and distribution. By the time it managed to secure the $8.3 billion it needed to procure and deliver the promised vaccines to 92 poorer countries in June 2021, manufacturers had no more vaccines to sell, as practically all their production was contractually committed to the HICs.
COVAX was caught in a Catch-22. Whereas initially it did not have enough money to buy the vaccines, now it has the money but there are no vaccines in the market. Besides HICs hoarding a huge cache of excess vaccines, two other problems are responsible for the global vaccine shortage.
The huge second wave of Covid infection in India in the Spring of 2021 led it to ban the export of the AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII). This was a huge shock and disappointment for both COVAX and most lower-income countries like Nepal. They were counting on SII, the world’s largest vaccine producer, to be their main supplier.
South Asia’s vaccine geopolitics, Christopher Tan
But an even bigger and more systemic problem is the unwillingness of a handful of Big Pharma to give up their exclusive patent rights to produce life-saving vaccines and medications. Although the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) provides for waiving patent rights in the case of life-saving medicines and vaccines, in public health emergencies like global pandemics, most HICs have refused to grant such waivers.
President Biden did express a willingness to consider waiving the intellectual property rights for Covid vaccines. But the same European leaders who loudly proclaimed Covid vaccines as ‘global public goods’, have stubbornly and hypocritically resisted waiving the IP rights of their pharmaceutical companies.
The hypocrisy is compounded because billions of dollars, euros and pounds of public funds were given to private Big Pharma companies to accelerate research and development of new vaccines for which they now claim exclusive patent rights to maximise profits for their private shareholders.
The G-7 charade
There were high hopes that the G-7 Summit of the world’s richest democratic countries in Cornwall in June 2021 would lead to a breakthrough in Covid response, revive COVAX and accelerate delivery of vaccines to developing countries. While the absence of an arrogant and unpredictable Trump created an atmosphere of congenial camaraderie at the G-7, its outcome was long in lofty rhetoric but woefully short in concrete and urgent action to tackle the global pandemic.
The IMF had estimated that an investment of $55 billion now would not only save the lives and protect the health of millions, but would help revive the world economy and yield a return of $9 trillion by 2025. Sadly, the G-7 accounting for 60% of the world’s economy did not pledge even 6% of the investment recommended by the IMF.
The G-7 commitment to donate less than one billion doses of the surplus vaccine they have hoarded, and that too over an extended period stretching well into mid-2022, was a huge disappointment in the face of a dramatic surge of newer and deadlier Covid variants ravaging countries like Nepal, much of Southeast Asia and the African continent.
COVAX estimates that it needs 2 billion doses in 2021 to reach the most vulnerable 20% of people in the developing world, and 11 billion doses to reach herd immunity by 2022. Alas, if current trends continue, if TRIPS patent waiver is not granted and technology transfer not facilitated to vastly increase and diversify vaccine production in many more countries, it might take decades before people in LMICs can expect to reach herd immunity.