Vaccine Dilemma

Vaccine Dilemma

Chaos reigns as Filipinos rush to get vaccinated with news of restrictions on the mobility of the unvaccinated. (Photo by Reuters)

Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forwards.
— Danish theologian Søren Kierk

WHILE several countries are now opening up their economies to recover from the impact of the lockdowns triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, the slow rollout of vaccines is giving SARS-CoV-2, or severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus 2, a chance to mutate again and again and come out with new variants.

And the rapid emergence of the Delta and Omicron variants has increased the need for booster doses. This is the reason why our experts are now contemplating initiating a fourth vaccine shot or second booster to give more protection to our citizenry, especially since scientists are now saying that the potency or efficacy of vaccines is waning as time passes.

Israel, a frontrunner in providing booster doses, is now actually developing a fourth vaccine dose. Yet appeals by the World Health Organization (WHO) to put booster doses on hold to prioritize the first doses for the world’s three billion unvaccinated people have fallen on the deaf ears of rich nations who see boosters as the new means to open their economies and end unpopular mask-wearing and social distancing norms.

Since most of the approved vaccines now in use do not provide immunity against new variants such as Omicron, SARS-CoV-2 will continue to circulate and mutate even among vaccinated populations.

But of late, vaccines have become a sequestered asset to maximize the return for global pharmaceutical majors and a safe means to increase the electability of politicians. In the pharma-politician nexus, billions of people worldwide have been left unvaccinated.

From the very first vaccine against smallpox to the latest mRNA vaccines against Covid-19, vaccines help protect the global community. However, accessibility to Covid-19 vaccines is deeply connected to intellectual property rights (IPRs).

At the 49th Session of the Human Rights Council, the Vatican Permanent Mission to the United Nations stressed that “IPRs should facilitate the pursuit of the common good in a manner conducive to social and economic welfare.” Sticking to its stance, the Vatican called for a temporary suspension of IPRs to ensure universal access to pandemic vaccines.

And while vaccination in the richest countries is so advanced that jabs for children are being administered, poor people in the low-income countries of Asia and Africa have been left in the cold. As of March 20, more than 5.04 billion people worldwide had received a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, equal to about 65.7 percent of the global population, with the UAE, Chile, Brunei, Portugal, Malta, Cuba, Qatar, China, Argentina, Cambodia, Bhutan and Singapore leading the pack.

The main hurdles faced by poor nations are gaps in cold-chain shortage, vaccine hesitancy, and a paucity of funds to support distribution networks. The two largest nations, China and India, have improved their situation by administering vaccines produced locally. But that is not the case for countries like Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal which depend on others for vaccines.

Oxford AstraZeneca is the most preferred drug and is used in 183 countries, followed by Pfizer BioNTech, used in 158 nations.

Africa has the lowest vaccination rate, with just 19.2 percent of its population receiving at least one dose.

Billions of vaccine doses have now been pledged for global donation, mainly by the US, China, and the European Union. However, vaccines are donated based on narrow geopolitical considerations rather than need. Low-income countries are relying on the UN-sponsored vaccine-sharing arrangement called COVAX, which aimed to administer two billion doses by 2021-end but missed the global goal because of production problems, export bans, and vaccine hoarding by rich countries.

Since most of the approved vaccines now in use do not provide immunity against new variants such as Omicron, SARS-CoV-2 will continue to circulate and mutate even among vaccinated populations.

There are also unconfirmed reports that ‘old vaccines’ will be dumped on poor nations as the rich nations plan to switch over to the second-generation redesigned vaccines. Developed nations are also planning to dispatch about-to-expire batches of vaccines to poorer countries that can do little to address vaccine inequities and vaccine nationalism, which have been decried repeatedly by no less than Pope Francis.

If vaccine diplomacy is the new great game played by power-hungry politicians, it is fraught with the risk that no one will be left a winner.


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