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Vaccine nationalism: Rich nations spend BILLIONS to grab first anti-coronavirus doses while poor countries are left behind (again)

Damian Wilson
Damian Wilson
is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.
is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.
Vaccine nationalism: Rich nations spend BILLIONS to grab first anti-coronavirus doses while poor countries are left behind (again)
The COVAX scheme that aims to ensure poorer nations will have access to a Covid-19 vaccine when it arrives is already being undermined by rich Western nations ordering hundreds of millions of doses in an “us first” strategy.

No one knows when an effective vaccine for Covid-19 will be approved but one thing’s for certain, when that day finally does arrive, the mad scramble to be first in line will make the Black Friday sales stampedes look like a lazy Sunday afternoon stroll in the park.

Those at the head of the queue will seize as much as possible for themselves and the rest can just hang back – at a social distance of at least 1.5 meters – and wait their freakin’ turn!

We all hope it might not be so “us first” greedy but history suggests otherwise. Vaccine nationalism is inevitable.

Just a few months ago, the nationalist sentiment that first arose as each country experienced the onslaught of Covid-19 was a surprise to many.

There were national embargos on the export of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and medical equipment, even to close neighbors. There was a scramble to buy protective gear which saw some nations prepared to pay a premium for permission to jump the queue or be given favored status by those with plentiful stocks. China? USA? Look this way!

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There was a lot of deflection, often using criticism of how Covid-19 was being handled elsewhere, as a means of avoiding too much scrutiny on the struggle to get to grips with the pandemic at home. 

And then there was the slamming shut of international borders, a move ostensibly for health reasons to stop the spread of the virus but often tinged with tit-for-tat motives and a desperate desire not to be seen anywhere near the top of the grim international league table of coronavirus fatalities.

At the peak of the pandemic, admit it, we were all hoping that the number of deaths elsewhere would eclipse those we were experiencing in our own nations.

We were only worried about ourselves, our families and our friends and on a far broader scale, our own national interest.

As quarantine rules, black zones, red zones and green zones become central to the latest diplomatic squabble, it’s clear that when a vaccine emerges from the scientists at AstraZeneca or Oxford University, among those on the hunt, then “us first” will become the de rigeur approach.

Sure, we all know who should have first access to the vaccine: healthcare workers, those most vulnerable to severe diseases, and those where the coronavirus is spreading rapidly – then the rest of us.

Of course, this is the ideal world situation. In case it’s passed you by, this ain’t an ideal world.

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So while struggling healthcare workers in Africa might find it difficult to access the potentially life-saving vaccine, low-risk citizens living in rich nations won’t find availability an issue.

The bonkers, flat-Earth anti-vaxxers will even choose to take a pass altogether despite easy access.

Meanwhile, in Asia, South America and Africa, people will continue to die as a result of this incredibly determined killer virus and their inability to either afford a vaccine or muscle their way to a point in the queue where they can get their hands on one.

And though the World Health Organization is optimistically heading up a system – Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) – to equitably distribute an as-yet-to-be-approved vaccine, advance orders for hundreds of millions of doses from the USA, Europe and the UK must be undermining those efforts, meaning there will be precious little left for those in poorer parts of the world once it does appear.

This is what happened when the antiviral drug cocktail used to treat HIV was discovered in the West in 1995. It only became widely available in Africa seven years later. So there is form.

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Just look at the name of the US government’s vaccine strategy: Operation Warp Speed. It has meant signing more than $6 billion in deals with vaccine companies as it aims to provide a vaccine to the entire US population by January 2021.

That’s all you need to know if you’re wondering about the extent of American altruism.

Not that the UK is any better. It has already ordered 100 million doses of an Oxford University vaccine that hasn’t even been trialed yet.

Those countries interested in joining their COVAX scheme, which aims to spread the risk by investing in a variety of vaccines largely on behalf of nations that could not afford to do it alone, have been asked by WHO to sign up by the end of August.

Elsewhere some EU countries are indicating that they’ll donate money to the cause but prefer to go their own way, thanks all the same. So if they happen across a vaccine and they are not COVAX signatories, then what?

It’s likely they’ll simply open up their vaccine market which will see those with the deepest pockets and most influence buy as much of the vaccine as they can.

Us first. You second.

The best intentions of all those with a stake in this health crisis, like the WHO, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or even Big Pharma will be irrelevant in a climate of vaccine nationalism.

We all wish the world was different but, let’s face it, it’s not.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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