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Three weeks into what is essentially a national lockdown and we still can’t be sure of whether the end is in sight. The situation has marginally improved, but the challenges ahead are still plenty. The biggest one is the vaccination drive. It started with an air of optimism but it is currently embroiled in uncertainty. The government decided to allow those aged between 18 and 45 to get their first doses, but as it turned out the supply simply wasn’t there. Karnataka has altogether suspended vaccinations for this age group until further notice.

Wealthy countries like the US and the UK have already vaccinated more than half of their people and are currently in possession of a surplus of doses. How did this happen? Well, about a month into the pandemic, the likes of the US and UK, Japan, Israel, Canada and so on all signed bilateral agreements with the major vaccine makers.

They invested heavily in the development of the vaccines and in return they were promised millions of doses and were also first in line to receive them. The US for example gave AstraZeneca $1.2 billion in exchange for 300 million doses. They signed similar agreements with Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. As things currently stand, the US has vaccinated 154 million Americans in spite of the fact that the AstraZeneca vaccine hasn’t even been approved there yet. They’ve managed to do so thanks to all the other deals they’ve signed which essentially acted as a hedge against one of their other investments failing.

Hindustan Times, 13 Jul 2021

India did not enter into such an agreement as it focused its efforts on developing and manufacturing its own vaccine. It has managed to do so, but manufacturing capabilities here simply aren’t extensive enough given the scope of the crisis. While the wealthier nations of the world have begun returning to a sense of normalcy, India and Brazil are reeling under one of the most catastrophic periods of the crisis witnessed thus far. So with countries like the US and the UK being in possession of so many extra doses, the natural conclusion would be that they should send their surplus resources to the countries that need them the most, but that hasn’t happened as of yet.

The Biden administration has waived the vaccine patents and has sent supplies in the form of oxygen and test kits, but this isn’t good enough. There is talk now that they are considering sending their stock of AstraZeneca doses, but it is unclear when they will do so, if at all. What we are seeing from these richer nations is something that is being termed as ‘vaccine nationalism’, wherein these countries are thinking solely of their own national interests.

The problem with this is that the COVID-19 pandemic is a global issue. It started in Wuhan and in a few months spread to almost every corner of the world. By hoarding surplus doses, the US and UK are actually prolonging the pandemic and the longer it takes to defeat the virus, the worse it is for everyone. While the countries in the West will start resuming activities as normal, they will still be affected by what’s going on in other parts of the world. The pandemic has shown us just how interconnected the world is today. When the global shipping industry faces bottlenecks in one region, the consequences are felt all over.

In January of this year the Economist found that widespread vaccine coverage would occur at a very uneven pace. The poorest regions, like that of Africa, Asia, and South America would have to wait until the end of 2022 or the beginning of 2023 to have vaccinated most of their population. Given that these regions are also the most densely populated and have the least resources, the damage that the pandemic will do will be devastating as we are already bearing witness to here in India.

With such an outcome, India will likely face a third and fourth wave before it can realistically declare victory over the pandemic. Just as we did last year and as is currently happening, we will enter into a lockdown when cases are high, remain in one until the cases drop and open up again owing to the economic costs. Invariably, cases will rise again as not enough people would have been vaccinated at which point we will have to enter into another lockdown.

The alternative would be to remain in a state of lockdown until widespread vaccination is achieved in which case many lives would be saved but livelihoods will suffer. The damage of a prolonged pandemic to both the economy and to human life will be profound.

A solution to this problem already exists in the form of an organisaiton known as ‘Covax’. This is an alliance of nations whose aim is to improve accessibility to vaccines, especially that of poorer countries. Rich nations can contribute funds to Covax who will then invest in various companies who are working on vaccine development.

Upon finding success, Covax will ensure that doses are distributed around the world in a fair manner. Countries like the US have already pledged upwards of $4 billion to this organisation, but the problem is that they have simultaneously entered into bilateral agreements. This undermines the efforts of Covax as vaccine makers will have an obligation to deliver doses to their biggest investors first, which will not include any poor nations. There should have been restrictions on countries like the US and UK signing these private agreements, perhaps enforced by the UN or the WHO, but even that would have been difficult to achieve.

Pressure now must be put on countries who have both vaccinated a majority of their population and have a surplus of doses to share their resources. By doing so, they will help ensure a brief struggle rather than a prolonged one. The dangers are not simply in the form of global trade and economics but also in the virus itself.

We are already seeing mutations that are causing concern in the medical community and this is something that could pose another significant threat to people everywhere, vaccinated or not. Besides, the loss in human life alone should compel the likes of Joe Biden, who while running for president declared that sharing the patents was, ”the right thing to do”, but in fact failed to do so until very recently and only did due to pressure from those within his own party. This does not excuse the leadership within India for its own failings, but the responsibility for a crisis such as this is undoubtedly a global one

For feedback write to pavan@bclindia.in

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