Vaccine nationalism could cost the global economy trillions of dollars, new analysis finds

Jordan Kelly-Linden
·4-min read
Clinical Research Nurse Ajithkumar Sukumaran prepares the COVID-19 vaccine to administer to a volunteer, at a clinic in London - Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP
Clinical Research Nurse Ajithkumar Sukumaran prepares the COVID-19 vaccine to administer to a volunteer, at a clinic in London - Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP

Vaccine nationalism could cost the global economy up to $1.2 trillion dollars, new analysis has found, amid concerns that lower income countries may miss out on crucial vaccines.

The study, put together by the not-for-profit research organisation Rand Europe, builds on previous research that has estimated the death toll from Covid-19 could be twice as high if the first two billion vaccine doses are not equitably distributed.

In the latest report, Rand analysed a series of ‘what if’ scenarios to understand the various consequences unequal distribution of immunisations may have on global prosperity. 

In the most extreme example, the analysis found that the world would lose $1.2 trillion dollars a year in GDP-terms if vaccine manufacturing countries, such as the United States, EU, UK, China, Russia and India, maintained a monopoly over the supply.

Failure to immunise the most vulnerable populations everywhere would prolong the pandemic, risking lives and further crippling big-money making industries such as tourism, retail and transportation, the analysis concluded.

However, if these high-income countries invested in efforts to ensure under-resourced countries also had equal access to the first round of vaccines, the return in investment would be four-fold: for every $1 spent, high-income countries would get back about $4.80.

“A globally coordinated multilateral effort to fight the pandemic is key, not only from a public health perspective but also an economic one,” said Marco Hafner, the study’s lead author and senior economist at Rand Europe.

“Our findings suggest that there are real economic incentives for the higher income countries to drive vaccine development and distribution to ensure that the rest of the world has access to vaccines as soon as possible.”

The findings add to a growing body of evidence calling for solidarity in the global fight against Covid-19.

The World Health Organization has long warned that health not wealth should influence the distribution of a potential coronavirus vaccine as “no one will be safe from the pandemic until everyone is safe”. 

However, many states have already tried to skip the queue, signing direct deals with producers of vaccine candidates in order to secure stock for their own population. 

Groups for which there are arguments for priority vaccination
Groups for which there are arguments for priority vaccination

Last month an Oxfam count revealed that a handful of wealthy nations – including the UK, US, Japan and Israel – have already snapped up more than half of the potential doses of the most promising Covid-19 vaccines.

These countries are home to just 13 per cent of the world's population but now hold around 51 per cent of the future supply, or around 2.7 billion doses. 

“Rich countries are ending up with an oversupply of vaccines and that will come at the expense of other countries. [But] it's a bit counterintuitive to why everyone is racing for a Covid-19 vaccine,” Jenny Ottenhoff, Senior Policy Director at The ONE Campaign, told the Telegraph.

“Research shows that the fastest way to actually end the pandemic is to ensure that the most vulnerable people everywhere are getting access to the vaccine first and not every single person in one population.”

This week the ONE Campaign launched a new Vaccine Access Test. The tool updates every month and is designed to assess whether governments and leading pharmaceutical companies are helping to reduce the lifespan of the pandemic by ensuring effective Covid-19 vaccines are available to people everywhere.

Among the countries and companies assessed by ONE, Britain was one of the top performers in terms of how much it is doing to make vaccine equity a reality.

The UK Government’s involvement with and funding pledges to international organisations boosted the UK’s score. British pharmaceutical companies have also performed well, in particular AstraZeneca, who received the highest rating of any Vaccine Access Test assessment. 

However this strong performance is jeopardised by the lack of transparency in the deals the UK has struck to secure vaccines, ONE warned.

Coronavirus Live Tracker promo embed
Coronavirus Live Tracker promo embed

“The reason there's vaccine nationalism is because people want to end the pandemic. They want to be safe, they want to get their economies going,” Ms Ottenhoff said. “But if the virus is still circulating unchecked in other parts of the world as soon as we open up our borders, it's going to come right back in.”

Modelling published by Northeastern University last month found that 61 percent of deaths could be averted if the vaccine was distributed to all countries proportional to population, while only 33 percent of deaths would be averted if high-income countries got the vaccines first. 

This is far from an ideal situation, Ms Ottenhoff stressed. 

“We won’t end this pandemic just by finding a vaccine - we have to make sure the whole world gets it, starting with those who need it most,” she said.

“Warm words on vaccine access aren’t enough here - as is often the case, the devil is in the detail of the deals being signed and we are still seeing a lot of room for improvement where it really matters.”

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