Inequitable distribution of COVID vaccines is not only unjust, it also risks prolonging the pandemic

A nurse prepares a dose of the vaccine in Chile. PHOTO: Alberto Valdes/EPA
A nurse prepares a dose of the vaccine in Chile. PHOTO: Alberto Valdes/EPA

OPINION

Just 12 months after the rise of the pandemic, a monumental global research effort has yielded approximately ten primary vaccines in various stages of development, several of which are already in production and being administered.

But which countries have access to them? We know we do. As does all of the world's wealthiest nations who, despite accounting for just 13% of the global population, have reportedly secured more than half of all the vaccine doses available.

In Australia, the rollout, which begins in the coming weeks, will comprise two drugs. The Pfizer vaccine, with a reported efficacy of 95%, plus the lower, 70% efficacy, Oxford/AstraZeneca jab still going through the TGA approval process. The AstraZeneca vaccine, if approved, will be manufactured locally by biotech company CSL.

The Federal government plans to administer the requisite two doses of both vaccines to 21 million Australians by October, thus achieving the 80% overall vaccination level generally accepted as the threshold to achieve herd immunity.

For rich nations like Australia, the issue is not when the vaccine will be available, but the relative efficacy of each one and whether executing the rollout in the shadow of further potential COVID outbreaks will lead to delays.

This is all well and good, for us. Meanwhile, in the developing world, the question is not which vaccine has more efficacy, but how long before one can be accessed at all and the degree of suffering inflicted by the evolving pandemic in the meantime.

According to Global Justice Now, Amnesty International and Oxfam, nine out of ten people in poor countries are unlikely to receive a COVID shot this year. Journal Nature quotes modelling that estimates some low-income countries may be forced to wait as long as 2023 or 2024 to receive the jab.

The world is an anarchic space where sovereign states co-exist without a set of binding rules. Historically, that's enabled the wealthiest, most powerful states to act unilaterally, serving their own domestic interests at the expense of those countries which have smaller influence and resources, without fear of reprisal or consequences.

The go it alone approach for many affluent nations has often been accompanied by little more than lip service being paid to multilateral agreements and organisations, whose aspirations to bind the world together and solve universal social problems with a shared and mutually beneficial purpose are perpetually compromised.

However, the situation has changed. As we've heard frequently in the past year, the pandemic is a global phenomenon which does not recognize national borders. Like efforts to combat climate change, solutions to effectively control the spread of COVID can't be found by one country acting alone. That path is futile. Consequently, how to globally distribute the vaccine fairly and effectively should logically be a central part of any collective solution in combatting the pandemic.

So far though, it doesn't seem to be heading that way. If 2020 was the year in which the world desperately struggled to come to terms with this phenomenon, 2021 is looking like the year that access to the vaccine is every country for themselves.

If significant areas of the world lack access to a vaccine, particularly among countries poorly equipped to control the spread, the virus will continue to evolve

Here's the catch. If significant areas of the world lack access to a vaccine, particularly among countries poorly equipped to control the spread, the virus will continue to evolve. Eventually, this may result in variant strains that do not respond to vaccines, allowing COVID to infect people anywhere that have previously been vaccinated.

As we know, variants of the coronavirus have already emerged. On Monday, a new study suggested that the AstraZeneca vaccine has limited efficacy against the South African variant strain, currently constituting 90% of all that country's new cases. It's just one study, but the South African Government has responded by announcing a suspension on the rollout of that drug.

It follows then that if wealthy countries like Australia remain focused on just vaccinating their entire population and shun a coordinated global inoculation effort that targets the most vulnerable groups and front-line health workers first, wherever they are, we all remain unprotected.

According to the International Federation of the Red Cross, nearly 70% of vaccine doses administered across the world to date have taken place in the world's 50 richest nations. In the world's 50 poorest, the number is just 0.1%.

Secretary General of the IFRC, Jagan Chapagain stated; "We are all rowing the same boat. Equitable distribution of the vaccine is more than a moral imperative. It's the only way to solve the most pressing public health emergency of our time. Without equal distribution, no one will be safe."

Through sacrifice, good management and some good fortune, Australia has managed to effectively control the spread of the virus considerably better than many other nations.

We have also secured enough doses to vaccinate our entire population three times over, a position of oversupply also enjoyed by the EU, the UK, the US and Canada. Meanwhile, COVID will continue to circulate and mutate in the developing world without equivalent access to vaccines. This is not only unjust but could prolong the pandemic everywhere.

  • Angus McDonald is an award-winning artist and documentary filmmaker. Twitter and Instagram @angusmcz