What is 'vaccine nationalism' and why should Americans care about it?

Eve Hartley
·Producer, Reporter
·3 min read

As more vaccines for the coronavirus are approved by regulatory bodies across the world, countries are scrambling to inoculate their citizens.

In the U.S., more than 32.7 million coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered so far, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 26.4 million people have received at least one dose, and an increasing number have gotten both.

The same fast-paced rollout is happening in other nations such as Israel, which is currently the world leader in administering the vaccine, having provided 57.65 doses per 100 people, according to the University of Oxford’s Our World In Data Project. Second in the world by the same measurement is the United Arab Emirates (34.79 per 100 people), followed by the U.K. (14.42), Bahrain (10.16) and the U.S. (9.63).

However, as certain countries push ahead, some health officials are raising alarms about the threat of “vaccine nationalism” — the tendency of governments to hoard vaccines for their own populations.

A Bahraini man leaves after he received dose of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, at Bahrain International Exhibition & Convention Centre (BIECC), in Manama, Bahrain on December 24, 2020. (Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters)
A Bahraini man after receiving a vaccine dose on Dec. 24. (Hamad I. Mohammed/Reuters)

“The pandemic has exposed and exploited the inequalities of our world. There is now the real danger that the very tools that could help to end the pandemic — vaccines — may exacerbate those same inequalities,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) director-general, on Jan. 29.

The health expert’s comments came as an analysis from Vox found that of the 80 million vaccines distributed as of Jan. 29, exactly 55 — not 55 million, or 55,000, but 55 — had been given out in a low-income country, namely Guinea. Most low-income nations, including much of Africa and parts of South America, hadn’t distributed any vaccines at all. A few “middle-income” countries, including India, Indonesia and Ecuador, began vaccination programs last month, but the vast majority of doses have gone to rich nations, a category that includes China, the U.S. and most of Europe.

Duke University’s Global Health Institute found that as of mid-January, countries making up just 16 percent of the world’s population had locked up 60 percent of the global vaccine supply. A December study from the People’s Vaccine Alliance found at least 90 percent of people in lower-income countries are unlikely to be vaccinated by the end of 2021.

The WHO warned in January that “vaccine hoarding” by the richest countries would be a “catastrophic moral failure” that could prolong the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it is also a threat to worldwide health, including in wealthy countries. The more infections that occur, the greater the risk of the coronavirus mutating again, posing a potential risk even to vaccinated populations, or even those who’ve recovered from COVID-19.

Nurse holds the Pfizer vaccine, in Quito, Ecuador, on January 21, 2021. (Rafael Rodriguez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A nurse holds the Pfizer vaccine in Quito, Ecuador, on Jan. 21. (Rafael Rodriguez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“While we’re waiting for other countries to get vaccinated, we are still exposed a little bit to the risk of increasing spread and new mutations,” Dr. Dara Kass, Yahoo News’ medical contributor, explained.

“Whereas if the entire globe was vaccinated, and the spread around the world had stopped, we would be much more secure that new strains would not pop up with the same level of frequency as if an entire corner of the globe is basically unvaccinated,” Kass added.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently addressed the topic and said that the goal is to ensure “equitable access” to vaccines for all countries in the world, rich and poor alike.

Fauci made the remarks while announcing on Jan. 21 that the Biden administration will change tack and reverse former President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach, and join Covax, a WHO program that aims to vaccinate people in lower-income countries globally.

Cover thumbnail photo: Alastair Grant/AP

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