Vaccine Nationalism: The biggest threat of 2021?

By Lachlan Boyle

If you have never heard the term “vaccine nationalism” before, get ready, because you will be hearing the phrase a lot in 2021 and beyond.

With the very first vaccines for Covid-19 arriving in Canada this week, there was much to celebrate, with many joyously embracing what will hopefully be the beginning of the end of a dark chapter in human history.

Advocacy organizations, however, are raising the alarm over what they argue is a lack of equity when it comes to securing access to the coveted vaccines. According to a report recently issued by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, the world’s most affluent nations representing only 14% of global population have currently purchased 53% of the vaccines to be produced by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Oxford-AstraZeneca – the three pharmaceutical companies whose products are the furthest ahead in the regulatory process. In fact, wealthy countries have currently secured access to all of Moderna’s doses so far and 90% of Pfizer-BioNTech’s.

While this is good news for the citizens of these affluent countries, it may have dire consequences for people living in less wealthy countries, who may have to wait far longer to be vaccinated for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. Oxfam Canada, for example, warns that only 10% of people in developing nations are likely to be vaccinated in 2021, leaving large swathes of the world’s population vulnerable to infection and possible death. Some might not even be vaccinated until 2023.

Canada, it seems, is part of the problem. The federal government has already purchased 214 million doses of vaccine, with an option for 200 million more. That amounts to over 400 million doses of vaccine for a country with a population of less than 40 million. Even when accounting for the fact that Canadians will likely need two doses of vaccine, this is still enough vaccine stock to protect our population many times over.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently defended Canada on this issue, pointing to the country’s support of COVAX, an organization committed to ensuring an equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. However, while the organization has secured 700 million doses for 92 developing countries, that is nowhere near enough to meet the needs of the developing world.

So, what can be done so that everyone, regardless of where they live, can access this potentially life-saving therapy? The People’s Vaccine Alliance and other advocacy organizations are calling on Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca, and the other pharmaceutical companies involved in the manufacturing of Covid-19 vaccines to share their technology and intellectual property. This would then allow for more widespread production of the vaccines and broader distribution across the globe.

2021 may come down to a choice between altruism and corporate profit.