We’ve heard world leaders, scientists, and health care officials tell us about the prospect of having a “normal” life once we’ve taken all the right steps to contain COVID-19. Dubbed as “the greatest vaccine effort in history”, vaccine programs have started to be implemented in various parts of the world. The question we’re all thinking about now is just the matter of when “normal” life starts again.
The matter of when
According to Bloomberg’s ongoing analysis on current vaccination rates, it would take an average of around seven years for life to return to how it was before the outbreak. This prediction comes from the results of the largest database and vaccine tracker of COVID-19 shots being distributed around the world. The data is presented with a calculator that provides a snapshot in time especially designed to put current vaccination programs into perspective. At the start of the pandemic, scientists suggested that it would probably take 60% – 70% of a nation’s population to be vaccinated for things to return to normal.
This prediction eventually changed. It’s currently suggested that at least 70% – 85% of a population would instead suffice. Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker indicates that a handful of countries are making faster progress than others (using a 75% coverage with a two-dose vaccine as a target). One example being Israel, the country currently holds the highest vaccine rate in the world and is expected to reach the 75% coverage within April this year. Putting that into perspective, Canada is expected to reach a similar threshold within 9.7 years despite the country having contracts to purchase more vaccine doses per person than any other country.
Over in Asia, China is expected to take at least 5.5 years to cover its large population, even though the country is administering over a million vaccine doses a day. Whereas countries that also have a significantly large population such as Indonesia and India are likely to take over 10 years – if they continue at the current pace of vaccinations.
The vaccination programs remain to be positive news as it lifts some pressure on healthcare systems. However, that positivism can easily be short lived by the fact that we’ll still have to continue to witness an abundance of unvaccinated vulnerable populations around the world struggle. With more than 110 million vaccinations currently being administered worldwide, richer nations in the West are showing far more progress than the rest of the globe.
This comes as a clear indication of the dangers of vaccine nationalism, something that the World Healthcare Organisation strongly warned world leaders about. This comes especially pertinent with the sudden emergence of new COVID-19 mutations.
Lessons from the past
Pharmaceutical treatments were able to save millions of people during the HIV/AIDS epidemic back in the 1990s. Wealthier nations in particular, were able to have better access to the drugs due to powerful business and government backing the pharmaceutical companies had at the time. Whereas countries outside the West found it difficult to find access to the much needed treatment. Developing nations and human rights activists have claimed that such a decision is the result of strong patent protection. This protection came under agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). However, many argue that TRIPS have favored more of the rich industrialized world and its multinational corporations (Ferreira, 2002).
The pharmaceutical companies were found to primarily focus on undercutting their markets solely within high-income countries. As a result, the drugs adopted internationally consistent prices which placed them well beyond the reach for people in less privileged nations. In fact, in 1998, the drugs needed to treat those with HIV cost more in South Africa (on a per capita GDP-adjusted basis) than that of in the United States or Sweden.
The government in South Africa referred to cheaper alternatives of the drugs from other parts of the world. To which more than 30 pharmaceutical companies sued it and cited patent laws. This decision was also backed by The Clinton administration and several European governing bodies.
What can we learn from that?
The world has shifted towards alternative approaches in handling epidemics – an approach that holds less dependency on big pharma corporations and the government bodies that back them. Philanthropies such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation continue to invest billions of dollars to research, develop, and distribute treatments to less wealthier parts of the world. Newer institutions that appeared within the last decade such as GAVI or the Vaccine Alliance who share a common goal to distribute vaccines appropriately also continue to push for such an approach.
With research indicating that only a handful of countries are able to afford to produce the COVID-19 vaccines, a global access to dosages will solely depend on wealthier nations. It will be down to the decision to distribute the vaccines based on another country’s public health needs, and not on the basis of a country’s spending ability. All in all, we’ll need to get vaccines distributed to prevent the spread – but it comes without saying that our world leaders will need to break down certain barriers that prevent distribution from happening.
In the meantime, we’ll leave you with this:
Lissett Ferreira, Access to Affordable HIV/AIDS Drugs: The Human Rights Obligations of Multinational Pharmaceutical Corporations , 71 Fordham L. Rev. 1133 (2002)