The UK has now secured 400 million doses of various COVID-19 vaccines, six times its total population. It’s already vaccinated almost 9 million people. But meanwhile just one of the 29 poorest countries in the world has received any jabs: Guinea, which had 55 donated by Russia.
This is called “vaccine nationalism”: when rich countries hoard vaccines at the expense of poor countries — and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has requested that the UK rethink its current strategy once it has protected its vulnerable and elderly.
Right now, the UK government’s plan is to have offered vaccines to 15 million people aged 70 and over by the middle of February. Then throughout the spring, it will move down the age groups, until everyone over the age of 50 has been immunised. According to the BBC, that represents somewhere between 90-99% of those most at risk of death from COVID-19.
But the WHO has said that, once that threshold has been passed, the UK should look at supplying vaccines to the world’s poorest countries, so they can immunise their health workers, their vulnerable, and their elderly too.
The comments came on Saturday from Margaret Harris, a WHO spokesperson, in an interview on BBC Breakfast. It echoed remarks from the WHO’s Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, that vaccine nationalism would be a “catastrophic moral failure” for the world.
“We’re asking countries, once you’ve got those high-risk and health care worker groups [vaccinated], please ensure that the supply you’ve got access to is provided for others,” Harris said. “While that’s morally the right thing to do, it’s also economically the right thing to do.”
“There have been a number of very interesting analyses showing that just vaccinating your own country and then sitting there and saying ‘we’re fine’ won’t work economically,” she added. “That phrase ‘no man is an island’ applies economically as well … Unless we get all societies working effectively once again, every society will be financially affected.”
Vaccine nationalism might serve short-term political goals. But it’s in every nation’s own medium and long-term economic interest to support vaccine equity. Until we end the pandemic everywhere, we won’t end it anywhere.— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) January 25, 2021
Another way that the UK could stem the tide of vaccine nationalism is by increasing its support even further for COVAX — a scheme that aims to deliver 2 billion vaccine doses to low-income countries in 2021. It’s one part of the ACT-Accelerator, a collaboration of international organisations set up to ensure that the tools to end the pandemic are equitably distributed.
The UK government says that it is already the single-largest donor to COVAX, having committed £548 million from its UK aid budget — the funds spent by the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) to help lift the world’s poorest people out of extreme poverty — to distribute 1.3 billion doses to 92 developing countries in 2021.
That total investment is included within the UK’s effort to mobilise over $1 billion in funding to COVAX from other countries by leveraging the UK aid budget as part of a match-funding commitment.
Previously, the WHO has warned that vaccine nationalism would cost high-income countries $4.5 trillion. It insists that the pandemic will not be over until everyone — from countries rich and poor alike — receives vaccinations against the virus.