Rich Western countries are hoarding COVID-19 vaccines. Guess who loses out?

By Tamaryn Nelson, Amnesty International’s Health Advisor. Please note that this op-ed was originally published on gal-dem in mid-Dercember. Since then Canada has started a vaccination program.

The fight against COVID-19 has taken a huge leap forward this month. The historic rollout of the first vaccine is underway in the UK and the USA, while Canada and others are set to soon follow suit. For many the news represents light at the end of the tunnel as we may have the opportunity to put an end to this pandemic.

But this is a global crisis that requires a global solution. The success of any vaccine will depend on it being fairly distributed and made available first to those most at risk – regardless of where they live, who they are, or what they can afford.

We all have the right to be protected against COVID-19. But as wealthy countries hoard doses, the lifesaving potential of vaccines risks being undermined by inequality and corporate interests. 

In a desperate bid to ensure their own escape routes from this pandemic, Western countries have made advance purchases of billions of doses of future vaccines for their populations – buying up enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over by the end of 2021. Known as “vaccine nationalism”, this involves large bilateral purchasing agreements between companies and a select number of countries.

New research by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, including Amnesty International, Frontline AIDS, Global Justice Now and Oxfam, shines light on who would have access to a vaccine if these contracts were to be rolled out today.

Both Canada and the UK have bought enough to vaccinate each of their citizens five times over. The USA has secured 800 million doses of at least six vaccines, with an option to purchase around 1 billion more. And the European Union, Japan, Canada and Australia have also followed suit, securing millions of additional potential doses.

The hoarding of vaccines is leaving limited potential supplies for other countries to protect their populations against COVID-19. In fact, 67 countries, including Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan and Ukraine – nations that have reported nearly 1.5 million cases between them – will only be able to vaccinate one out of 10 people unless we course correct immediately.

Governments and the pharmaceutical industry have human rights obligations and responsibilities to take measures to increase access to these life-saving advances for the maximum number of people around the globe. The health and livelihoods of millions of people rely on a safe and effective vaccine being available and allocated in a fair and timely way, upholding the right to health, allowing people to earn a living, and ensuring people can see those they love without fear or restrictions. 

Without fair access globally, pre-existing inequalities will only deepen – with those who have been marginalised and discriminated against historically continuing to be disproportionately impacted. 

Take people living in overcrowded and unsanitary refugee camps – they are likely to be at higher risk of exposure and often have no access to the healthcare they need, including vaccines. Indigenous Amazonian communities in Ecuador are at risk too – they face a higher risk of COVID-19 thanks to the scarcity of drinking water, food, medical supplies, health services and vital tests.

Several UN agencies have also warned that nearly half of the world’s workforce is at risk of losing its livelihood, whilst the World Bank has noted that 88 to 115 million people may be pushed into extreme poverty in 2021, possibly rising to as many as 150 million people.

Governments have a responsibility to ensure those most at risk everywhere around the globe have access to vaccines when they become available. This means wealthier states should refrain from making large bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies. Instead, they should join and support global initiatives which aim to ensure fair vaccine access for all countries, such as the World Health Organisation’s COVAX mechanism. 

Leading pharmaceutical companies must also fulfil their human rights responsibilities and ensure the widest possible access to their innovations, putting people before patents.

It is vital the views of marginalised groups are amplified to ensure that national vaccine policies are not exclusionary or discriminatory.

It is only through working together that we can end this pandemic and build a more just and sustainable future. 

For more information, please see Amnesty International’s full human rights guide to and policy recommendations on COVID-19 vaccines