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How the Rich Nations Are Hoarding Coronavirus Vaccines

Apr 29, 2021 2:04 PM 5 min read

Joseph Brotherton, a former British MP, once said: 

The richness of a man lies not in the extent of his possessions, but in the fewness of his wants.

No offence, Mr. Brotherton, but you clearly discounted a pandemic situation from your analysis because over here, fewness isn't so much measured by a country's modest and muted necessities, as it is by the insurance against potential shortage and scramble in the future. 

Yes, we are referring to the harrowing coronavirus vaccine shortages that have left a majority of the world's population defenseless against a deadly virus. All the same, wealthier nations continue to stockpile the bulk of the vaccine supply even as the virus keeps retreating with more novel and more virulent strains, turning the developing nations into a petri dish for further mutations that may fatalise the world. 

That is, until now, when the USA, UK, EU and others were compelled to release these vaccines and other resources after facing increased criticism for not assisting sooner with the explosive second wave of the pandemic in India. 

Let's see how for months, the developed nations have hoarded COVID-19 vaccines and the raw materials needed for their production. Also, whether doing so may have backfired and, in a way, prolonged the pandemic. 


Propping Up the Vaccine Manifesto 

Since the early days of the pandemic, around the time when the first set of vaccines were approved for emergency use across many nations, rich countries in particular have gone on a buying spree, or more precisely, "a panic buying spree". They began drafting agreements with the manufacturers, sometimes even before the clinical trials had ended. 

If these weren't vaccines but say, war-time supplies like food, ammunition, fabric, etc. You would understand why keeping a buffer stock beyond proportions still makes sense. To make up for a rainy day.

But with vaccines, what sort of rainy day scenario does one face once the entire country's population is inoculated? There's a finite upper limit on vaccine requirement for every country.


Which is why the United States or the EU, sitting on over a billion doses of vaccines each with less than 500 million population in either, defies all logic. The UK is yet another culprit which has contracted sufficient doses to cover 340% of its population. Smaller but affluent nations like Israel and UAE have already covered their entire population with at least one shot. Meanwhile, Canada has secured enough doses to vaccinate its population five times over. 

This is again exacerbated by the fact that these countries now have some of the highest recovery rates in the world, augmented by the most aggressive vaccination drives ever launched. Which means its way past time to let go of the stash.

Trivia: Gibraltar is the only country to have vaccinated 100% of its population. 


On the other end of the spectrum, you have countries like Mali and Nicaragua who are yet to receive their first doses. The entire African continent, with 1.3 billion people, has accounted for less than 2% of the total global vaccinations so far. 93% of the doses have been given in only 10 out of the 54 countries in the continent. 

As of April 23rd, high- and upper-middle-income countries accounted for 81% of all doses administered globally whereas the low-income countries accounted for just 0.3%. 


The COVAX Promise 

The COVAX initiative was started to solve this particular inequity in vaccine procurement. It was a symbiosis between 98 well-off countries in the WHO agreeing to fund or contribute to vaccine programmes in 92 poorer countries. 

India is an interesting hybrid in the sense that in spite of its considerable economic deficiencies, it has managed to pull through on its COVAX commitments and act as a bridge between the developing and developed world in vaccine collaboration. 

Unfortunately, owing to the recent astronomical rise in caseload and deaths in the country, the de facto "pharmacy of the world" lost its generous adventurism after distributing over 66 million doses to more than 95 countries, explaining the recent export ban. 

Since then, India went from being a vaccine exporter to a vaccine importer, as it prioritised the fulfilment of domestic requirements. This intensified the call for rich nations to shed their vaccine nationalism and begin sharing their stock. USA and France have already declared to do so and a few others are expected to follow imminently (New Zealand, Spain etc.).

But then again, it doesn't come close to fulfilling the vaccine needs of the whole world. More countries need to come forward to facilitate equitable access rather than risk endangering the world's health to the mutant whims of the coronavirus.

How To Care And Share Simultaneously? 

In February 2021, Boris Johnson said,

The UK is ready to give away hundreds of millions of spare vaccine doses to the developing world, once all adults in the UK have been inoculated. 

This raises a question - Why delay sharing until domestic needs are fulfilled? Especially for countries whose stocks exceed their population by almost a continent. 

Research published Nature uses game theory to suggest that countries can avoid turning vaccine acquisition into a zero-sum game. This means wealthy nations can reconfigure their agreements with vaccine manufacturers in such a way that secures necessary doses for their own citizens AND shares technology to boost production in other parts of the world at the same time. 

This is called "tithing" the vaccine supply. For every nine doses the rich nations administer within their own borders, they can comfortably donate one dose to COVAX. It's not much, but it's honest work. In fact, Norway has already begun by vaccinating its citizens parallely to its COVAX donations. 


The Cost of Shunning Solidarity 

No doubt this is a collective liability scenario. If the rich don't fund or subsidise vaccines for the poor, the simmered-down pandemic will soon resurface within their own countries. As much as one may regret it, mutual vulnerability is what binds our fates together. 

If the pandemic continues in some countries, new variants will emerge and spread, which could potentially restart the pandemic in rich countries too.


The alternative is incurring a worldwide economic loss to the tune of $9.2trn. That is, if equity in supply is not achieved soon. Rich countries may account for almost half of these losses, which are staggering by all descriptions. 

So in the spirit of humanitarian pursuits (and the unified fear of potential economic decimation), let us heed the words of Ben Franklin and "hang together instead of hanging separately" from the precipice of this insufferable pandemic. 


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