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'Vaccine nationalism' will sabotage the war against coronavirus

By Stephen Ndegwa Source: CGTN Updated: 2020-08-20


A staff member displays samples of the COVID-19 inactivated vaccine at Sinovac Biotech Ltd., in Beijing, capital of China, March 16, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

Editor's note: Stephen Ndegwa is a Nairobi-based communication expert, lecturer-scholar at the United States International University-Africa, author and international affairs columnist. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

As the world makes concerted efforts in the fight against the raging COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world have been burning the midnight oil in search of a vaccine aimed at locking both the transmission and illness of the coronavirus.

Unlike previous cases where only a couple of countries were engaged in vaccine development, the search for a coronavirus vaccine involves diverse countries. These include China, the United States, the European Union (EU) countries, Switzerland, Brazil, Australia, Russia, the United Kingdom, and South Africa.

There are an estimated 100 vaccine candidates in various stages of development, with several having moved to human trials.

Although things are looking up, not everyone may be counted for vaccination at the onset. The ongoing race to save humanity is accompanied by unhealthy "competition" among a couple of vaccine developers. While some countries have indicated they will eventually share their approved products with the rest of the world on the basis of equity, a few are holding their cards close to the chest.

Some countries have indicated that the first priority will be all their citizens, regardless of other regions in the world where there is more urgent need.

The red flag was raised in an article published by the online Kaiser Health News on May 15 titled, "Trump's 'America First' attitude toward vaccine could be devastating to rest of world, experts warn."

The article stated that "fears that the United States will trample other countries to secure a vaccine prompted more than 140 world leaders to sign an open letter to all governments demanding that COVID-19 vaccines be considered a 'global good' to be shared equitably."

On the other hand, Russia has already declared an eureka moment, with President Vladimir Putin announcing on August 11 that the country had approved the first home-made COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, in commemoration of the first Soviet satellite that was launched to Earth's orbit in 1957.

Although at the moment, Sputnik V has only been approved for use in Russia, Putin has already promised to spare vast quantities with the developing world.

Mass production of the vaccine has already kicked off, with the first batch expected to be administered to frontline workers and other people in high risk professions including paramedics, doctors, school teachers and the police starting September. The second tier would naturally include the vulnerable – children, the elderly, and invalids. 


Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference on occasion of the Global Vaccination Summit in Brussels, Belgium, September 12, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

Now, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on August 18 warned against what he termed as "vaccine nationalism," noting that "sharing finite supplies strategically and globally is actually in each country's national interest." The director-general cautioned countries developing the coronavirus vaccine against unilateral tendencies in the ongoing initiatives, observing that "supply nationalism exacerbated the pandemic and contributed to the total failure of the global supply chain" at the earlier stages.

As of August 20, there are more than 22 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, including more than 780,000 deaths. The U.S. has more cases than any other region with over 5.5 million people reported to have been infected with the virus.

WHO has previously called for COVID-19 vaccines to be recognized as global public goods to secure adequate stock for countries without the wherewithal to develop their own. It would be foolhardy to hoard vaccines, since no one is safe until everyone is out of danger. 

China captured the spirit of universal vaccination in a joint statement after the Extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity against COVID-19 held on June 17.

In the joint statement of the summit, China made a solemn undertaking to make its approved vaccine or vaccines "a global public good as part of China's contribution to vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries, in particular African countries."

Though "vaccine nationalism" was not directly referenced, the conference opined that this bred politicization of the pandemic, discrimination, stigmatization and the attachment of a geographical label to the virus.

Actually, China mulled a kind of vaccine diplomacy where sharing would not only help in overcoming the pandemic, but also build trust and friendship, and uphold multilateralism.

In efforts aimed at eradicating the pandemic, countries should also discourage growth of the so-called anti-vaxxers, which is a dangerous antithesis of "vaccine nationalists." As a result of various conspiracy theories around vaccines gaining traction through misinformation, an emerging group of people are resisting the administration of vaccinations on themselves or their families. Significant numbers of this group will pose a serious risk in the forthcoming massive vaccination campaign against the coronavirus by compromising the achievement of the necessary herd immunity at the community level.

WHO's antidote for "vaccine nationalism" is the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility, a pact of its 194 member states aimed at guaranteeing access of these drugs globally. In addition, COVAX will ensure that all vaccine producers benefit from the vast vaccine "market," enabling recipient countries to enjoy cheap prices from healthy competition and economies of scale.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of Qiushi Journal.