As the world eagerly awaits the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines in the market, there are growing concerns over ‘vaccine nationalism’, a new buzzword in the global debate surrounding the pandemic. Many rich countries like the United States, UK and European Union are already pre-booking vaccine supplies and spending tens of billions of dollars on deals with vaccine front-runners. The US is making arrangements to provide more than two doses of vaccine for all its citizens. There are fears that such advance agreements will make the vaccines unaffordable and inaccessible for poor countries who may be forced to wait for vaccine supplies for months or even years. Though the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned the nations against hoarding vaccines, the calls for equitable and ethical distribution of the vaccine may fall on deaf ears in the midst of changing geopolitical dynamics in the global pharmaceutical sector. Many of the vaccine candidates currently under clinical trials may not succeed. This will eventually lead to increased prices for those developed successfully, making the vaccines unaffordable for many countries with small economies. The WHO and some other international alliances have started a programme called ‘Covax Facility’ to ensure equitable access to the vaccines but the initiative, though lofty in intent, is unlikely to make much headway. The programme needs at least $100 billion funding, with 170 countries keen on joining the initiative, but the global health body has not been able to secure even 10% of this amount.
Being a major vaccine supplier to the world, India has the potential to play a key role in overcoming vaccine nationalism. The richest-takes-it-all approach in the ongoing global fight against the pandemic is bound to be counter-productive, especially for the recovery of the low and middle-income countries. There is a need for international cooperation to arrive at a global strategy. India, the largest vaccine manufacturing hub in the world, can play a crucial role in bridging the gap. Pune-based Serum Institute has already started manufacturing the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine candidate even before the clinical trials have been completed. The countries with deepest pockets should not be allowed to walk away with the lion’s share of the new vaccines. Ideally, the strategy should involve prioritising health workers, followed by countries with major outbreaks and then those people who are particularly at risk. As per the WHO’s plan, the first round of vaccination can cover 3% of each country’s population, followed by population-proportional allocation until every country has vaccinated 20% of its citizens. However, the general thinking in the governments — including in India — is that the distribution plan must prioritise frontline healthcare workers, followed by senior citizens and then the people with comorbidities.
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