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Ignoring Vatican on vaccines could be perilous in pandemic fight

Self-serving vaccine nationalism by rich nations will hamper global health and economic recovery

Ignoring Vatican on vaccines could be perilous in pandemic fight

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (top, second left) inspects the Covid-19 vaccination program at Tokyo Medical Center on Feb. 18. (Photo: AFP)

The Vatican's demand for equal access for all countries to Covid-19 vaccination has become a cry in the wilderness. However, the Vatican’s call has helped generate second thoughts on the need to consider poor countries in the rush for vaccines.

Vaccine nationalism, adopted by a few of the richest nations, has stalled a much-needed global health and economic recovery after the coronavirus pandemic had infected 109 million people and caused more than 2.4 million deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Ever since the pandemic began to ravage the globe, the Vatican has regarded the health and economic recoveries of all nations, particularly the poorer nations, as a moral principle. The Holy See was quick in pointing to the lack of balance in vaccine distribution.

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While the US, the UK and the European Union have secured billions of doses of vaccines, countries in Asia and Africa, which together house more than 77 percent of the world’s population, are struggling to get access to vaccine supplies.

Less surprisingly, the world’s poor stand no chance to get immunized in 2021, dealing a blow to the positive narrative on global cooperation. Experts point to the fact vaccine nationalism in itself is lopsided as no country is safe as long as the virus continues in some form, somewhere in a human body.

With vaccine nationalism, there comes unpropitious vaccine diplomacy. Countries like India have started doing this by supplying vaccines to neighboring countries and others to advance their own diplomatic interests. Brazil, for example, had accepted 2 million doses of vaccine from India as of Jan 23.

Since the rich nations have sworn by vaccine nationalism where they push to get first access, the US$25 billion needed to foot the bill of supplying the poor nations with Covid-19 vaccines is difficult to come by. 

The world’s common vaccine platform, Covax, led by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, has managed to mobilize only $2.4 billion so far.

The Covax scheme could get only 1.3 billion doses of vaccine to cover 20 percent of the global population spread across 92 countries by the end of this year.

However, the rich nations own billions of doses, more than enough to cover their entire populations several times. They have garnered 60 percent of the world’s vaccine supply to inoculate 16 percent of the world’s 7.69 billion population.

For example, the European Union has enough to vaccinate its population twice, the US and the UK four times, and Canada six times.

Besides, some 82 percent of pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer’s production in 2021 and 78 percent of Moderna's supply have already gone to the hands of the rich countries.

The me-first policy

Current global vaccine production capacity meets only a minuscule proportion of global demand. The pharmaceutical companies are riding high on this demand-supply mismatch.

Due to the uncertainty about the success of vaccines in the trial phase, the world’s richest nations placed orders with many companies — a trend denounced by the Vatican, which tried to nip it in the bud.

The rich nations' me-first policy left the poor countries high and dry and pushed up the cost of the drugs at the same time.

Their wish to protect themselves first has far-reaching consequences for the coordinated global efforts to arrest the spread of Covid-19, as advocated by the Vatican time and again.

Before the vaccines were ready, Pope Francis had insisted on equitable access to them. The pope had a special place for the poorer nations in his mind.

However, his call fell on deaf years, forcing him to repeat his humanitarian demand yet again on Feb. 8: “I encourage all states to contribute actively to the international efforts being made to ensure an equitable distribution of the vaccines, based not on purely economic criteria but on the needs of all, especially of people most in need.”

However, after warnings emerged that rich countries were themselves digging the graves for their already troubled economies with their so-called vaccine nationalism, renewed scrutiny about vaccine supply has surfaced.

Besides the United Nations, WHO, International Monetary Fund and the International Chamber of Commerce batting for equal access to Covid-19 vaccines, this year’s Davos agenda in January stood for “interdependence and cooperation” in vaccination priorities. 

Renewed scrutiny has come into the minds of high-profile global agenda setters because a tardy global economic recovery will cost high-income nations $119 billion per year. And the global economy, of which they are the biggest beneficiaries, stands to lose $1 trillion a year.

Vatican solution

The Vatican came out with its own solution to the most vexed global existential crisis in human history.

On the World Day of the Sick on Feb. 11, Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said that vaccine production in developing countries could make the drugs cheap and accessible.

To get rid of vaccine nationalism, the Catholic Church is slamming the doors against the patents which grant exclusive rights to a few while excluding others from making the vaccines on their own soil.

A strong political will and moral commitment should be put in place as nation after nation is showing the tendency to succumb to vaccine nationalism, which is self-defeating and counterproductive.

A delay in curbing the pandemic could result in new mutations which could lead to vaccine resistance to perpetuate the needless deaths on the altar of market-driven vaccine nationalism.

In the absence of true national freedom for the people to produce vaccines, humanity will fail the “first great moral test before us,” as UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres puts it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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