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No money, no vaccine: Poor countries in a quandary

  • Published at 02:29 pm April 3rd, 2021
Africa Coronavirus
File Photo: A boy walks in front of a graffiti promoting the fight against the Covid-19 in the Mathare slums of Nairobi, Kenya on May 22, 2020 Reuters

According to Oxfam, rich countries with only 13% of world's population buy up to 61% of vaccines even before their production 

The coronavirus pandemic has so far infected 130,954,934 and killed more than two million people.

The vaccines that people had been expecting in the last one year when production started, appear to have become mired in politics and business.

In the meantime, economically strong countries have bought vaccines for themselves.

But it was not supposed to happen this way.

Ever since the Covid-19 vaccine was introduced, heads of government of rich countries, the Global Vaccine Alliance-Gavi, and the World Health Organization have repeatedly said that they will make arrangements so that no country is deprived of vaccines for want of money.

In reality, a different picture was seen to emerge.

According to a report by Oxfam, rich countries buy up to 61% of vaccines even before their production. But only 13% of the world's people live in these rich countries.

India has the world's largest licensed pharmaceutical industry. Serum Institute is licensed to produce billions of doses in order to supply them to developing and low-income countries, including India itself.

India is now the sole partner in the millions of doses the company is producing, but there is supposed to be a fair share to be given to  the world's 92 poorest countries.

By denying that right to these countries, the Indian government is considering this antidote only as the state property of India.

In an article published in The Guardian, Achal Prabhala and Leena Menghaney explain how the world fell victim to this injustice.

Achal is the coordinator of the AccessIBSA project, which campaigns for access to medicines in India, Brazil and South Africa, while Leena is an Indian lawyer who has worked for two decades on pharmaceutical law and policy.

A year ago, scientists at the Jenner Institute of Oxford University were at the forefront of the race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.

At the time, it said that it would give the right of production to any company in any country of the world. Initially, Serum Institute was one of the companies that signed the agreement on production rights.

A month later, Oxford signed a contract with the British-Swiss pharma AstraZeneca on conducting research and manufacturing the vaccine. As a result, AstraZeneca had the full right to market the vaccine.

The company then signed another new deal with Serum Institute (SI). According to the agreement, SI will produce doses of the vaccine aimed at supplying all the poorer countries identified to help the International Vaccine Alliance-Gavi.

The 92 countries identified by Gavi, including India, have a total population of about four billion, which is half of the world's population. India has a fair share of 35% in terms of population, but an unwritten agreement was reached between the two sides during the AstraZeneca-SI agreement, under which both sides agreed to meet local demand with 50% of the produced vaccines.

There are also problems with price. AstraZeneca promised to sell the vaccine for free in the midst of the pandemic. But it did not set any limit on the price. As a result, Uganda, one of the poorest countries in Africa, had to buy antidotes at three times the price that Europe paid.

Although Western countries discriminate, they have spent huge sums of money on research and development of the Oxford vaccine. In comparison, there is no evidence that the Indian government has spent a penny on research at the SI, according to the Guardian article.

The article stated, citing a source close to SI, that the Indian government was also determining the number of doses and the date of delivery of the consignments under Covax.

The more vaccines are approved, the less pressure there will be on SI. At the moment India has two options: either depriving 91 countries of their own vaccination programs or delaying its own programs by vaccinating others.

The consequences are quite catastrophic. So far, Serum Institute has provided 28 million vaccines for the Covax program, of which 10 million, or one-third, have been left with India.

The second highest shipment of the vaccine went to Nigeria. With the 4 million doses of vaccine sent there, only 1% of the country's population can be vaccinated.

Due to the Indian government's order of 100 million doses, it will be too late for countries like Nigeria to get the vaccine, which could take until July.

And with India ordering another 500 million doses, what the cost of this delay in vaccination in poor countries will be is now a matter of concern.

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