GS 2 : Issues relating to health

Source: The Indian Express dated 04/05/2021

Context: Stressing that there cannot be any vaccine nationalism, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Monday urged countries to share technologies on Covid vaccines. She also called for examining Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement in the light of the corona virus pandemic.

What is Vaccine Nationalism?

  • When a country manages to secure doses of vaccines for its own citizens or residents and prioritizes its own domestic markets before they are made available in other countries it is known as ‘vaccine nationalism’. This is done through pre-purchase agreements between a government and a vaccine manufacturer
  • For example, last year, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and the European Union had spent tens of billions of dollars on deals with vaccine front runners such as Pfizer Inc, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca Plc even before their effectiveness is proven.

Is it something new?

  • No. The present race to hoard Covid-19 vaccines harks back to a similar situation that happened in 2009 during the H1N1 flu pandemic. Australia, the first country to come up with a vaccine, blocked exports while some of the wealthiest countries entered into pre-purchase agreements with several pharmaceutical companies. The US alone obtained the right to buy 600,000 doses.
  • It was only when the H1N1 pandemic began to recede that developed countries offered to donate vaccine doses to poorer economies. However, it must be noted that H1N1 was a milder disease and its impact was far lesser than Covid-19.
Why is it a concern?
  • Lack of global coordination regarding vaccine distribution will hit conflict affected areas and poorer countries the hardest. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates that more than 60 million people in such areas are at risk.
  • Equity in access to vaccines is important for mitigating the impact of pandemic.

  • It puts countries with fewer resources and bargaining power at a disadvantage. Thus, if countries with a large number of cases lag in obtaining the vaccine, the disease will continue to disrupt global supply chains and, as a result, economies around the world.
  • Lack of vaccinations might result in the mutation of the virus (eg.B.1.617 originating from Maharashtra), making it more likely to transmit and escape prior immunity that has been built up.

What are the possible solutions?

  • Addressing the UN Security Council in February, the External Affairs Minister had suggested that the world needs to stop vaccine nationalism and actively encourage internationalism.
  • WHO-backed COVAX Facility mechanism -The countries who join the initiative are assured supply of vaccines whenever they become successful. Moreover, the countries will get assured supplies to protect at least 20 per cent of their populations.
  • Since there are no provisions in international laws that prevent pre-purchase agreements, the TRIPS agreement will have to be looked at in the context of the pandemic.

What should India do?

  • Strengthen the COVAX facility to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines to all countries in a fair and equitable manner. Also, India receives around one-third of its supplies to COVAX, since India is also a beneficiary country and the largest recipient under the vaccine-sharing programme.
  • Increase the vaccine doses available in the country to step up the vaccination programme. The government’s decision to invite other vaccines approved by the WHO and regulators in other countries to apply for approval in India is a welcome step.
  • Reverse the restrictions on exports, potentially undoing the goodwill earned earlier by free supply of vaccines to friendly developing countries and by its substantial contribution to the international COVAX programme to supply vaccines to lower-income countries
  • Develop self reliance (Atmanirbhar)  in vaccine resources, so that India doesn’t need to rely on other countries for ramping up production.

Way forward

As WHO Chief remarked last year, vaccine nationalism has put the world on the brink of ‘catastrophic moral failure’. In order to avoid that, the developed countries should back the proposal put forward by India and South Africa to waive the intellectual property rights for Covid vaccines, and thus treat vaccines as a global public good, available for everyone, everywhere.

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