Attempts by developed nations to monopolise the production of coronavirus vaccines and hoard them, a phenomenon described as ‘vaccine nationalism’, could weaken the fight against the pandemic and lead to spawning of new virus variants with vaccine resistance, a leading medical expert has warned.
This assumes significance in the wake of the massive spread of Omicron and detection of a new COVID-19 variant in France, temporarily named as ‘IHU’.
“The narrow, self-centric behaviour may not only turn out to be epidemiologically self-defeating and clinically counterproductive, but is also bound to prolong the pandemic by perpetuating the spread of the contagion in and across unprotected populations,” according to Prof (Dr) Yatish Agarwal, Vardhman Mahavir Medical College & Safdarjung Hospital, New Delhi.
“If the majority of the world population goes unvaccinated, the toll taken by COVID-19 illness will continue to wreak havoc,” Prof Agarwal writes in an article that appears in the Manorama Yearbook-2022.
Making a strong pitch for equitable distribution of vaccines and speedy immunisation of people across the globe, he says the politicisation of vaccine distribution is proving counterproductive for democratic practices globally.
Dr Agarwal argues that the practice betrays ‘a crass moral failure’ in the backdrop of WHO’s declaration of ‘Health for All’. Vaccine nationalism, spurred by the market approach, may snowball into a situation which could go horribly wrong.
“In such a setting, the virus is bound to grow and multiply and spawn new virus mutations. These new avatars of coronaviruses may lead to vaccine resistance, and precipitate a fresh threat to the human race,” writes Dr Agarwal.
Given the small scale of vaccine production, extending vaccine protection to the entire global population is no mean task, according to him.
“The challenge deepens, given that most vaccines require at least two jabs to instil a primary protection, and very possibly, one or more subsequent booster shots to keep up the immunity.”
Dr Agarwal, who is also Dean, University School of Medicine, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi, says the rich nations with their economic strength and vastly superior scientific and pharmaceutical capabilities have forced an unequal run on the coronavirus vaccine supply, and left little or no provisions for the citizens of the third world.
A small contingent of wealthy nations — Australia, Canada, Japan, the UK, USA and the European Union — through investments in vaccine manufacturing and advance purchase agreements, have secured nearly half of the planned 2021 supplies of the leading vaccine candidates, says Dr Agarwal.
“Together, these countries account for just 14 percent of the global population. Still, by making advance market commitments, they collectively reserved nearly five billion vaccine doses,” he points out.
The US has entered into at least six bilateral deals, totaling more than one billion doses — more than enough to inoculate the entire American population. The European Union, Britain and Canada have each entered into seven bilateral deals, with the potential of securing enough doses to cover their populations two, four, and six times over, respectively.
Dr Agarwal says the compulsions of the electoral politics of democratic governments in developed countries are understandable as they need to win the approval of their own people by prioritising their health over those of all others.
However, these nations must strike a fine balance to share stockpiles of vaccines, waive patent protections, relax export controls on ingredients used for vaccine production, and reduce vaccine costs for poor countries.
Making a strong case for building a diplomacy-based international political clout, he suggests tailoring a ‘vaccine continuum’ as an imperative that would reflect the global will to stymie the pandemic and secure the health and well-being of the human race.
“Eradicating Covid-19 requires nothing less than a universal vision and global leadership. The benefits of vaccination must percolate across large parts of the world if human populations have to develop herd immunity and call a stop to the deadly play of the virus,” argues Dr Agarwal.