Nationalism Can’t Defeat a Pandemic

The stark disparities in vaccine distributions around the world raise social, economic, and ethical concerns.

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By Eleanor Chin

Governments talk about equality and human rights until their own vaccines are on the line. Three-quarters of the distributed vaccines went to 10 wealthy countries, which only encompass about one-fifth of the world population. This shocking disparity in distribution is the outcome of vaccine nationalism, and it highlights the stark gaps in global healthcare.

Unfortunately, the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) international agreement mandates a 20-year monopoly patent on vaccines, blocking developing countries and vaccine-producing companies from producing and distributing generic vaccines. A petition led by India and South Africa attempted to waive the implementation of TRIPS but was blocked by Western countries, including the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the United States. They disingenuously argued that waiving this intellectual property would lead to less vaccine distribution and disincentivize the creation of new vaccines, diagnoses, and treatments. They instead advocated for voluntary licensing and the importation of technologies from Western countries.

Any efforts to end this pandemic should take precedence over theoretical future vaccinations. The cost of this intellectual property is already being felt as SK Bioscience, a South Korean company, was sued over alternative versions of the vaccine and forced to close Pfizer vaccine production due to Pfizer’s patents. This situation will continue to occur unless intellectual property rights are waived. We should view the vaccines as public goods, not as items on the global market.

While America blocks certain vaccinations, our adversaries, China and Russia, have led worldwide vaccine distribution. China has distributed one-fifth of the vaccines produced within the country, and Russia has distributed around 31 percent, or more than four million, of their own globally. Many Western countries, namely the United States and the United Kingdom, view China and Russia’s distribution as attempts to bolster their respective images and are warning developing countries not to trust these vaccines.

Vaccine nationalism impacts everyone. If the populations of wealthier nations are vaccinated while those of developing nations are not, the pandemic will not end, as 80 percent of the world’s population resides in developing countries. When herd immunity is prolonged, there is a greater chance of new variants mutating and spreading. The longer the pandemic lasts, the greater the impact will be on economies, social hierarchies, and the death toll around the world. The disparity is furthered as 16-year-olds in the U.S. are being vaccinated, while the oldest and weakest around the world cannot secure a shot.

There may be hope. COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) hopes to distribute six billion COVID vaccines to developing nations. This rollout will be quite slow due to the shortage of vaccines and resources, with experts expecting widespread vaccination in these countries to occur by 2023. Other countries are also aiding worldwide. After a request from the United Nations, Mexico suspended many of its Pfizer vaccine purchases to help distribute to developing countries instead. India has donated more than three million vaccines to its neighboring nations, including Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives, and created a plan to expand donations to Mauritius, Myanmar, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan. Though the United States has not donated to its full ability, it transferred $4 billion to COVAX. While the pandemic has highlighted major disparities in global healthcare, it will hopefully act as a lesson and aid in reducing those disparities.