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Global vaccine drive scaling up, but inequities remain

Covid-19. Red liquid vaccine in glass tubes.. Cases of COVID-19 illustration. Image credit: Ivan Uralsky. vaccine hesitancy concept. Also to illustrate article re: emergency use authorisation. Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Also used in coverage of vaccine hoarding. Vaccination campaign concept. Cost of COVID-19 vaccine concept. vaccine shipments concept. Sputnik V illustration.. Also to illustrate vaccine stockpiling. vaccine drive concept.
Image credit: Ivan Uralsky / 123rf

The global vaccination campaign against COVID-19 is scaling up. However, the vaccine drive continues to miss out many countries. 

Since the vaccine drive commenced in December, more than 345 million vaccine doses have been administered. India began its own vaccine drive in January and, as of Sunday, has administered 29.74 million doses. 24.31 million people have received at least the first dose. Its average of 1.26 million doses a day in the last week is superseded only by the United States, which recorded a daily average of 2.5 million doses.

Yet concerns over inequitable distribution of vaccines globally remain. The vaccine drive has largely excluded countries at lower levels of economic development, who have scrambled to procure enough doses to inoculate their populations while wealthier countries have secured substantially more doses than required to vaccinate their citizens. This state of affairs has been in the crosshairs of the World Health Organization (WHO), which launched COVAX in conjunction with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Gavi. 

The trend of so-called ‘vaccine nationalism’ has been criticised by many at the international level. Bruce Aylward, senior advisor to WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said “anything that restricts the ability to get these products out will affect our ability to control this disease and prevent variants emerging. The world is going to have to collaborate to get out of this.” Tedros himself has called out vaccine nationalism, stating vaccine hoarding “will only prolong the pandemic” and warning that there is a risk of “catastrophic moral failure” should more equitable access to vaccines not be ensured. 

India, for its part, has embraced vaccine diplomacy. Its centric role in the global vaccine drive is hardly unexpected, given that it is home to the Serum Institute of India – the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. As I noted previously for Health Issues India, “India does indeed have a huge role to play in the global fight against this pandemic – and its role in combating global vaccine nationalism will be of enormous significance. This has lent rise to vaccine diplomacy, reminiscent of India’s “medicine diplomacy” seen in earlier stages of the pandemic such as when it came to hydroxychloroquine (one far from free of controversy).” 

A commentary published by CNA has recently spotlighted India’s “generous vaccine diplomacy.” Writing in the commentary, Shashi Tharoor – who represents Thiruvananthapuram in the Lok Sabha as a member of the Indian National Congress – outlines that India’s ““Vaccine Maitri” (Vaccine Friendship) campaign has shipped hundreds of thousands of Indian-made Covishield vaccines, manufactured under license from Oxford-AstraZeneca, to some sixty countries…at a time when most richer countries are criticised for hoarding vaccine doses, India stands out for having sent 33 million to poorer countries, with millions more in the pipeline.”

Tharoor goes on to note that “India’s vaccine diplomacy is, of course, not purely altruistic”, highlighting the contrast between India and China. “Not only has India overshadowed China as a provider of cheap and accessible vaccines to the Global South; it has been quicker and more effective…India is using the country’s capacity in this sector subtly to advertise an alternative to China’s economic and geopolitical dominance,” he writes. 

Controlling and ending the COVID-19 pandemic demands equity in the global vaccine drive. India is clearly making good on the long-held anticipation that it would take centre-stage. With scores of countries yet to inoculate even a single person, the road ahead is long – and fairness is the key to getting to the end of it. 

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