If the world doesn’t learn to distribute vaccines equitably and unconditionally, pandemic events like COVID-19 will become annual events, one economist and geopolitical expert has warned.
Two thirds of epidemiologists have warned that a failure to vaccinate the globe against COVID-19 opens the door to mutations so extreme they render the current vaccines ineffective within a year.
Of those surveyed by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, nearly one third said mutations will occur within nine months or less.
However, at the current rate of vaccination, only 10 per cent of people in the majority of poor countries will be vaccinated by the end of the year, the Alliance said.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla has issued a similar warning, describing variants as playing a key role in how the vaccination program plays out.
"A likely scenario is that there will be likely a need for a third dose, somewhere between six and 12 months and then from there, there will be an annual revaccination, but all of that needs to be confirmed,” he told CNBC’s Bertha Coombs during an event with CVS Health.
And if the world doesn’t manage to vaccinate every person, it’s staring down the barrel of a $9 trillion catastrophe, Oxfam analysis of International Chamber of Commerce figures found.
That’s an equivalent loss of $1,348 for each Australian person.
According to Colin Chapman, an economist at the Australian Institute of International Affairs, this problem has one root cause: greed.
“Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, when he was asked about [vaccines], he used the phrase: ‘Greed is good,’” Chapman said.
“Overstatements are [Johnson’s] trademark, but the fact is that everyone – all the richer countries in the world, and some of the less rich ones – have obviously decided that they’ve got to put their own countries, their own people first. And so they went out and overbought.”
That meant Johnson tasking venture capitalist Kate Bingham with securing a massive cache of vaccines.
In some ways, Chapman noted, Bingham was perhaps too good at her job; by the end of March, the UK had successfully administered 30 million doses of the vaccines, compared to a total of 72 million in all 27 European Union countries.
Vaccine diplomacy and China
Similarly in Asia, China and Russia have both led successful vaccination campaigns and have begun sharing vaccines with neighbouring countries, in acts that have been referred to as vaccine diplomacy.
The problem is, Chapman said, this isn’t no-strings-attached aid.
“What it is, is trying to gain a one up on others by offering them vaccines but expecting something in return. That something could be very nebulous, it could be very vague, but it could also be some kind of benefit,” he said.
“The one leader who has been the most aggressive on this is probably [President] Xi Jinping in China.”
In a February keynote address, Xi said one of the biggest challenges the world faces is cooperation.
“China will continue to provide vaccines to countries in need to the best of its capability, and do what it can to make vaccines a global public good and promote their equitable distribution and application around the world,” Xi said.
“China stands ready for vaccine cooperation with China-Central and Eastern European countries. So far, Serbia has received one million doses of vaccines from a Chinese company, and there is ongoing cooperation between Hungary and Chinese vaccine companies.
“China will actively consider such cooperation with other China-Central and Eastern European countries if there is the need.”
Chapman said that while the speech presented China as simply sharing vaccines in the name of international cooperation, its deal with Abu Dhabi suggests a motive to strengthen the United Arab Emirates relationship.
“China wants a presence and influence in the Middle East, and this is just the start,” associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Alfred Wu said.
However, the ability of these countries to pull these diplomatic strings has also been strengthened by the West’s relative reluctance to share vaccines, the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies’ Michael Jennings said.
And no matter what way it’s sliced, the politicisation of the vaccine is bad news for everyone, he added.
“The prospect of global health becoming a new arena for global power competition and rivalry should worry us all. Whatever benefits may have emerged from such rivalries in the past, they did so through cooperative rivalry,” he said.
“The global response to COVID-19 has thus far tended to be uncooperative and divisive, casting blame or seeking to spread distrust.”
What’s the worst that could happen?
If geopolitical relations continue down this path, the outlook is grim, Chapman said.
Countries in South America and Africa like South Africa and Kenya will be left behind in a major way, and the globally poor spread of vaccinated citizens will provide opportunities for mutations to emerge and proliferate.
“What comes out of it is a very serious problem,” he said.
As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen last year warned: “A global pandemic requires no less than a world effort to end it. None of us will be safe until everyone is safe. Global access to coronavirus vaccines, tests and treatments for everyone who needs them, anywhere, is the only way out.”
While the European Commission’s response has ultimately been haphazard at best, Chapman said von der Leyen’s words are still alarmingly true.
“Until you get a vaccination of say 50 per cent of your people… you’re not going to get any results.
“You’ve got to provide the vaccines, and the world has got to pay for it.”
However, he does have hope that global approaches to healthcare can change, as evidenced by the USA’s campaign to provide free vaccines.
In a country where healthcare is often prohibitively expensive, the free service implies change is possible, Chapman said.
And if the US and China manage to repair tensions to work together, the pathway out becomes even clearer.
“It’s grim but on the other hand, it’s not going to be solved by God. It’s got to be resolved on this planet by the leaders.”