The Irish Times view on global vaccination: no one must be left behind

The inequality of vaccine distribution is a profound moral challenge, a test of our common humanity

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation, has warned that as rich states rush to buy up vaccines and poor ones struggle to find supplies, the rising tide of vaccine nationalism threatens a "catastrophic moral failure". Rich countries with 16 per cent of the world's people have bought 60 per cent of its vaccine supply. The EU has signed enough procurement contracts to vaccinate its people twice over; the US, four times over.

More than 90 million people worldwide have been vaccinated, but a meagre 25 in all of sub-Saharan Africa’s one billion people have been given doses outside of drug trials. And a study by the Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that 84 of the world’s poorest states won’t get enough vaccines to achieve herd immunity until 2024.

The inequality of vaccine distribution is a profound moral challenge, a test of our common humanity. But the rich world also has powerful, selfish reasons for ensuring that no-one is left behind – unanswerable medical and economic imperatives which, ignored, will cost far more in lives and economic prospects sacrificed than a genuinely global roll-out of vaccinations.

The longer the virus spreads unchecked through the developing world, the greater the likelihood that it will continue to mutate. New, more dangerous strains will emerge, some resistant to vaccines, and inevitably wend their way to the rest of the world, which will find it impossible effectively to shut down borders.

And endemic spread in the developing world will cost the wealthy dear. A study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research warns that the unequal distribution of vaccines around the world could cost the global economy a staggering $9 trillion in 2021 because of depressed demand and disruptions in global supply chains. Half of that will be borne by rich countries. Who will buy our products when, as the World Bank predicts, some 150 million more are pushed into extreme poverty over the course of 2020-2021?

In contrast, the vaccination of one-fifth of the world’s most vulnerable population, as the WHO’s underfunded Covax initiative aims to do, would cost less than $40 billion.

Western governments must find that cash urgently, not for charity but in their own interests. And they should back proposals from South Africa and India temporarily to waive intellectual property rights for coronavirus-related medical products, to allow poor countries immediately to start producing their own supplies.

Ghebreyesus rightly warns that “the pandemic will not be over anywhere until it is over everywhere. This is the reality of an interconnected world, and that reality can be met only by a reaffirmation of solidarity and an inclusive public-health order that distributes vaccines globally, quickly, and equitably”.