Immunisation campaigns have been toting themes like “Vaccines for all” or “Vaccines bring us closer” signifying that the vaccine is universal, with everyone having equal access. However, the reality is that vaccines are not for everyone but for a select few. An article in The Economist said that more than 85 countries in the world will not have widespread coronavirus vaccine coverage before 2023. Rich countries, however, have far more vaccines in stock than actual demand.
An article in The Guardian said, “The virus isn’t a leveller. It has made the rich richer”. Oxfam is already calling coronavirus the “inequality virus”. The combined wealth of the 10 richest people in the world, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, rose by USD 540 billion during the pandemic, with Oxfam stating that this amount would be enough to pay for vaccines for everyone in the world. However, so far, 85 percent of vaccine doses administered have been in high- and upper-middle-income countries—only 0.3 percent of doses have been administered in low-income countries, according to the latest global vaccine data. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that at least 70 percent of the global population will have to be vaccinated in order to defeat the pandemic.
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Just as countries are using vaccines to expand their diplomatic and geopolitical dominance, so too are companies. The vaccine business has already given birth to nine new billionaires, according to The People’s Vaccine Alliance. Eight existing billionaires with Covid-19 vaccine pharmaceuticals have so far seen a combined wealth increase of USD 32.2 billion. The vaccine market has exploded in value.
Questions of parity and inequality have been raised because the diplomacy of vaccines, geopolitical equations, and the global vaccine business is now controlling the vaccine rollout across the world. As Bangladesh saw, while India and China are both considered its close friends, India has not been able to provide the initially promised vaccines, and China has primarily agreed to sell the vaccine at USD 10 per dose.
Is the vaccine a public health necessity or another business for profit? WHO is trying to establish the notion that the vaccine is for everyone, but their voice is far too weak among all these interest groups. It should be noted that vaccine-producing countries and companies do not view the vaccine as a public health necessity but as a tool for business and geopolitical domination. Low-income and developing countries are the primary victims, with Bangladesh among them.
Various countries, large international companies and concerned individuals are taking advantage of the emergency situation by defying standards or accepted practices. In Bangladesh’s case, for example, there are already various complications in buying vaccines from China. China finalised the sale of the Sinopharm vaccine to Bangladesh at the price of USD 10 per dose. Simultaneously, the two countries agreed on keeping the price confidential. Nevertheless, the price somehow got leaked and went public, which in turn led to protests from the Chinese. The same vaccine was sold at USD 14 per dose to Sri Lanka and to Indonesia at USD 17 per dose. With Bangladesh now having violated the condition of privacy, it has become uncertain whether China will sell more Sinopharm doses at the previously agreed price of USD 10 with the foreign minister telling the media recently that the price is set to be higher for future doses. The question is, why should there be a confidentiality agreement in the first place, and why shouldn’t there be parity in vaccine prices? This is not only the case with China but also with other countries and pharmaceutical companies across the world.
China has developed more than 140 million doses of the vaccine, according to a March 2021 research survey by Statista. The United States has produced around 100 million, Germany and Belgium have developed 70 million doses, India 45 million, the UK 12 million, and Russia 10 million doses. Yet, Bangladesh is still asking for vaccines from country to country, all while paying extra money. Contracts for the vaccines and the deals being carried out have been kept secret from the general public.
In the end, how true is the theme “vaccines for all”? Covid-19 vaccines, while a blessing for some countries, companies, and individuals who have benefited enormously from the business, are an expensive necessity for low-income countries such as Bangladesh.
Amir Khasru is the Chief Executive, Study Group on Regional Affairs, Dhaka.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org