A scramble for COVID-19 vaccines has broken out among some of the world’s wealthiest nations. This is understandable — but too narrow a focus on their own needs is shortsighted as well as ethically wrong. Letting the pandemic rage on in poorer parts of the world will imperil their own efforts to end the emergency. Self-interest aligns with what should be a moral imperative. Increasing the supply of vaccines for everybody needs to be given a much higher priority.
The European Union recently took a controversial step to secure doses for its citizens, restricting the export of vaccines until its own orders have been met. But the rich world in general has done what it can to corner scarce supplies. More than half of the 12.5 billion doses planned for delivery this year are spoken for, mostly by developed nations.
Canada has bought enough to vaccinate its population five times over. Poor nations can hope to inoculate only a fraction of their populations this year. If current trends hold, many won’t complete their vaccinations until 2024.
Allowing the pandemic to continue uncurbed across much of the globe would be unforgivable — and, it must be emphasized, dangerous for everyone. It greatly increases the risk of deadly new strains, and if these prove resistant to current vaccines, even fully inoculated countries might suffer new surges. In addition, persistent global economic dislocation will weigh on the rich countries’ recoveries. Helping poorer countries cope is the smart thing to do, as well as the right thing to do.
The success of additional vaccine candidates will help to expand potential supply, but manufacturing capacity will continue to pose a problem. How best to ramp up production?
A group of countries led by India and South Africa is pushing for intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines to be waived during the pandemic. But greater output requires technology as well as access to intellectual property.
It would be better to recruit the vaccine makers as willing allies — both in scaling up their own manufacturing as quickly as possible and in forming partnerships with other producers. Drugmakers lacking viable COVID-19 vaccines of their own should come forward to produce under contract, as Sanofi has begun to do for Pfizer and BioNTech. Rich countries could use their financial muscle to encourage this.
China, Russia and India should provide more data about their own vaccines and subject them to further vetting by the World Health Organization, so they can be used more widely. (A study recently found the Russian vaccine to be highly effective.) A clearinghouse for information about the global vaccine supply chain would help governments to identify bottlenecks and head off delays.
In grappling with all these challenges, what’s needed most is global leadership and coordination. The G-7 should take on a role like that played by the U.S. government in Operation Warp Speed — working directly with pharmaceutical companies to tap unused vaccine-making capacity around the world, and helping set up supply and distribution networks.
Fully funding the WHO’s Covax program would provide the money companies will need to scale up production, including to upgrade facilities, train staff, and procure antigens, vials and syringes. The cost could be substantial — but only a fraction of what rich countries will lose if the pandemic goes unchecked.
Such efforts are not at the front of governments’ minds. They should be. If ever there were a moment for ambitious and effective global action, it’s now.
The Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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