Global approach to vaccination will deliver long-term dividends
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The United States will soon ship 25 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to a range of countries in desperate need. President Joe Biden has committed to exporting a total of 80 million doses by the end of the month with more to come, after growing pressure on nations such as the US that have ample supply and have already vaccinated a large proportion of their populations.
While this is a welcome change, when you put it into the context of the global need for more vaccine doses, America’s newfound generosity is a drop in the ocean. About 11 billion doses are needed to vaccinate 70 per cent of the world’s population, which most experts consider an absolute minimum requirement to reach herd immunity.
People in Bangkok wait after receiving China’s Sinovac vaccine. Credit:AP
With about 2 billion doses having been administered worldwide so far, mostly in developed nations with large local manufacturing capacity, the road ahead in containing the pandemic is a long one.
The push to step up manufacturing capacity is having mixed success. China is getting up to speed. It is now vaccinating about 20 million of its own people a day, and it is sending tens of millions of doses overseas. Its two vaccine manufacturers, Sinovac and Sinopharm, have said they can, combined, make up to 5 billion doses a year.
But there are also frustrations. The push for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, led by India and South Africa and recently backed by the Biden administration and China, is being blocked by the European Union.
The EU has put forward an alternative plan, which has big-pharma support, that would lift export restrictions on vaccines and their raw materials, expand global manufacturing capacity, and make it easier for countries to use existing rules to override patents. At the very least, the counterproposal is going to slow any decision on the issue.
An alternative to waiving intellectual property is being put forward by the World Health Organisation, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund. They have called on wealthy nations to contribute a further $65 billion to increase manufacturing capacity, supply and delivery of diagnostics, oxygen, treatments, medical supplies and vaccines for the many developing countries that are still battling to contain the virus.
The four global bodies estimate that a fund of this size would curtail the pandemic to an extent that would generate an extra $11 trillion in additional global output by 2025. It’s a lofty goal, and one that is going to be an uphill battle.
While nations have donated a range of assistance, it has been ad hoc and, at times, has been linked to the national interests of the donating country. COVAX, the main program backed by the WHO to offer equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, has delivered so far only 79 million doses, equivalent to about four days’ production effort in China.
As Australia has learnt, relying on overseas supplies can be fraught even when you have the resources to pay the full price. Rare side effects related to the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is being locally made by CSL, have limited its use to those aged over 50, and access to the Pfizer vaccine has been restricted by the enormous global demand.
At the pace the world is now going, vaccinations are not going to be available to many people until well into 2022. While infection rates are dropping in those nations lucky enough to have vaccinated a good proportion of their populations, the virus is still raging in many countries.
The pandemic requires a global effort to bring it under control. Resources committed today to combat COVID-19 will deliver a healthy return in years to come, not just in lives saved but in the future prosperity of all nations.
Gay Alcorn sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.
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