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“Vaccine Nationalism” at "Full Speed"

Updated: Dec 14, 2020


Volunteers wait to be checked at a vaccine trial facility in Soweto’s Chris Sani Baragnarath Hospital outside Johannesburg, South Africa, last month. More than 2,000 are on AstraZeneca’s experimental COVID-19 trial. The World Bank classifies South Africa, a developing country in the shadow of apartheid, as an industrialized country. (Photo by AP/Jerome Delay)

The poor around the world are watching preparations for COVID-19 inoculations and wondering whether they will be included in the distribution.


“I am reiterating the call for a vaccine to be a global common good available to everyone everywhere and, particularly, available in Africa,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last Wednesday in a virtual hybrid news conference with Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat following the fourth U.N.-African Union Annual Conference.


“Most African countries lack the financing to adequately respond to the crisis, due in part to declining demand and prices of their commodity exports.”


In response to a statement that while floodgates to COVID-19 vaccines are opening in rich countries, Africa might not see vaccines until the second quarter of 2021, according to the Indian financial newspaper, Mint (December 10), Guterres said:


“We are seeing vaccine nationalism moving with full speed. . . . If Africa is not properly supported, we will not be able to fight the virus anywhere.”


The United States may begin to vaccinate its population with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which has been shown to be 95 percent effective, as soon as tomorrow. The United Kingdom was the first Western country to authorize use of the Pfizer vaccine. It began inoculations last Wednesday. Canada and Bahrain also have approved the vaccine. A second jab, 21 days after the first, is necessary for optimal immunity.


The European Union is expected to approve the Pfizer vaccine “in the coming weeks, maybe even before the end of the year,” European Council President Charles Michel said in a France Inter Radio interview today, according to Bloomberg (December 13). The EU is following its normal regulatory process unlike the United Kingdom and the United States which received emergency use approval.


In a fast-moving pandemic, no one is safe unless everyone is safe, it reads on a World Health Organization website.


Guterres appealed for more funding in the next two months for the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, which aims to buy and deliver novel coronavirus vaccines to the world’s poorest.


WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a U.N. General Assembly meeting last week that vaccines “must be shared equally as global public goods, not as private commodities that widen inequalities and become yet another reason some people are left behind”, reported AP (December 10).


Tedros said that WHO’s ACT-Accelerator program to develop vaccines quickly and distribute them fairly includes the COVAX program, which is strapped for cash. Without major new funding, it “is in danger of becoming no more than a noble gesture.”


Once any of the nine COVAX portfolio vaccines in development and nine under evaluation, as of September 3, have undergone successful clinical trials and received approval, available doses will be allocated to all participating countries (78 had expressed an interest as of September) at the same rate, proportional to their total population size, according to Gavi, one of the four groups, including WHO, which coordinated COVAX.


A 5 percent buffer will be kept aside to build a stockpile for acute outbreaks and support of humanitarian organizations, which for example, will vaccinate refugees and others who, otherwise, would not have access.


Self-financing participants can request enough doses to vaccinate 10 percent to 50 percent of their population, but no country will receive enough to vaccinate more than 20 percent of its population until all countries in the financing group have been offered this amount.


For poor nations, who, otherwise, would not be able to afford these vaccines as well as a number of higher-income self-financing countries that have no bilateral deals with manufacturers, COVAX is the only way in which their citizens will get access to COVID-19 vaccines, reported Gavi.


China and Russia already have inoculated people with emergency-approved COVID-19 vaccines still in the testing phases. Their decision has led to concern that their actions will fuel public mistrust of vaccines.


China has about five COVID-19 vaccines in different phases of trials. On Wednesday, Uganda authorized the import of 4,000 doses of a vaccine for the use of Chinese businessmen in an industrial park, according to Africa News (December 9).


“They wanted it for themselves,” said Uganda Minister of Health Jane Ruth Aceng in the Daily Monitor. “We said: Strictly limit it to yourselves. We do not want it to spread in the population. Uganda imports vaccines that are World Health Organization prescribed, assessed for safety . . . that is the vaccine we bring for the population. And we have applied for it through Gavi.”


Almost 1 million people in China have taken an emergency-approved COVID-19 vaccine that is still in its testing phase, according to Sinopharm.


Chinese authorities released the vaccine in July to groups of people, including government officials, students and workers traveling overseas, reported The Guardian (November 20).


Sinopharm head Liu Jingzhen posted these claims on WeChat. He did not specify which of the company's two COVID-19 vaccines had been distributed but said that inoculated individuals had traveled to more than 150 countries and “there has not been a single case on infection after inoculation”.


In September, the United Arab Emirates became the first country outside of China to approve emergency use of Sinopharm’s COVID-19 vaccine.


“China has promised to supply multiple countries with its vaccines, delivering potentially conflicting promises to prioritize places such as the Philippines and nations in Africa,” reported The Guardian.

In Russia, doctors, teachers and social workers are being offered Sputnik V in a mass inoculation campaign ordered by President Vladimir Putin,” reported BBC News (December 8). “Its timing, just ahead of a similar launch in the U.K., is unlikely to be a coincidence.”

Russia granted approval of “Sputnik V” for emergency use within the country in August. Sputnik V makers claim that the double-dose vaccine is reported to be 92 percent effective, according to BBC News (November 18).


“We hope the vaccine is effective, but it’s difficult to trust some of the figures,” said Svetlana Zavidova, whose organization monitors clinical trials in Russia. “We don’t see the point of such a rush, other than announcing how we beat the rest of the world. I think there’s a struggle between scientists and politicians, and the latter are winning.”


Despite the fanfare rollout, there are problems scaling up production and alleviating the fears of the Russian people. Also, the significance of the launch is unclear as these workers and VIPs have been offered the vaccine since August. The list, which includes Putin’s daughter, is said to number more than 100,000.


Sputnik V has to be stored at minus 18 degrees C.


“We only saw a handful of people getting injected on the first day of mass vaccination. On Monday, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta described similar scenes at another Moscow clinic,” said The Guardian. “According to the paper, a nurse had to throw some Sputnik V away when she defrosted it, and no one turned up.”



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