Ugly vaccine fights are emerging as rich countries battle for doses while poorer countries miss out completely

  • Rich countries are starting to fight over coronavirus vaccine supplies, while poorer countries miss out.
  • The European Union this week clashed with drugs-giant AstraZeneca and the UK over vaccine supplies.
  • The EU has threatened to limit vaccine exports to other countries.
  • Meanwhile, the poorest nations are struggling to secure supplies, threatening a further global economic and health crisis.
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The specter of "vaccine nationalism" reared its ugly head for the first time this week when the European Union clashed with drugs-giant AstraZeneca and the United Kingdom over delays to European shipments of its COVID-19 vaccine.

Europe has so far fallen well behind the UK in its vaccine rollout, in large part because of a successful procurement operation by the UK government.

European officials are furious that Britain has received all of its orders on time from UK-based AstraZeneca, while European orders have been delayed. The EU's health commissioner went further and suggested limiting exports of EU-made vaccines to other countries. Europe, Germany's health minister insisted, must receive its "fair share."

AstraZeneca's chief executive has since suggested that the UK had signed its vaccine three months earlier, which gave the company crucial extra time to "fix all the glitches" with vaccine production. He has also insisted that the UK's order would be fulfilled first.

The row has led to threats from some European politicians of a new "trade war" between the EU and the UK, less than one month after Britain left European trading rules.

One UK minister accused the EU of "vaccine nationalism" — an accusation that would have carried more weight had the country's ruling Conservative party not spent weeks boasting that it has vaccinated more people than other European countries.

"We are No.1 in Europe," the party tweeted, adding that it had administered more vaccine doses than Italy, France, Germany, and Spain combined.

The row has all been red meat to the fiercely anti-EU tabloid press in the UK, most of which on Thursday splashed heavily on the row.

"No, EU can't have our jabs!" read the Daily Mail front page, while the similarly anti-EU Daily Express went with "Wait your turn!" while branding the EU "selfish" for demanding a larger share of vaccine supplies.

However, focusing on a row over vaccine supplies in Europe risks obscuring a bigger problem. Spats like these are inevitable because global demand for vaccines was always going to outstrip the immediate supply.

It is instead worth reflecting on the fact that a small number of rich countries have hoarded almost the entire global supply of COVID-19 vaccines and left very few for poorer countries.

Consider again the insistence of Germany's health minister that Europe must receive its "fair share" of vaccine supplies. Could anyone argue that it is "fair" that a select few rich countries — the UK, the US, Canada, countries in the EU – have secured enough vaccines to immunize their entire population and have millions left over?

That plentiful supply means rich countries are speeding ahead with their vaccination programs. Israel, which aims to have immunized the entire country by March, has had the most success. The United Kingdom aims to have immunized a quarter of its population by mid-February. The United States has administered more than 20 million jabs. Even France, which drew weeks of headlines for falling behind its neighbors in the vaccination race, has now vaccinated one million people.

GettyMeanwhile, many poor countries can only hope to vaccinate a small percentage of their population this year. Per the Washington Post, the World Health Organisation this week said that only one of the 29 lowest-income countries in the world have started immunizing their population — the West African nation of Guinea. The COVAX program, which aims to promote more equal access to vaccines among rich and poor countries, will only begin distributing doses in February.

South Africa's president this week called for rich countries that have secured "up to four times what their population needs." 

"This is being done to the exclusion of other countries in the world that most need this," he told a virtual Davos event, according to Politico. South Africa is yet to administer a single coronavirus vaccine.

Some might argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with "vaccine nationalism" — that it is merely the function of nation-states protecting their own interests and citizens. But, quite aside from the ethical case for ensuring poorer countries can access vaccines, there is an economic and a public health one too.

GettyFailure to fully vaccinate non-Western countries will inevitably lead to further global outbreaks, and new strains of the virus, some of which may prove to be vaccine-resistant and risk reinfecting those countries that have hoarded vaccine supplies.

The economic case against vaccine nationalism is also a strong one.

A report commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce this week found that unequal distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine could cost the global economy $9 trillion, half of which would be footed by wealthy countries. Put simply, the global economy is interconnected. Global supply chains depend on the health of the global economy, not that of individual rich countries.

"Ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines is not only the right thing to do – to do otherwise is economically irresponsible," said John Denton, president of the ICC.

There are some early signs that rich countries are beginning to wake up to this reality. The EU and Canada have already pledged to donate leftover doses of the vaccine to poorer countries. But there is a long way to go until there is anything "fair" or equitable about the world's distribution of vaccines.

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