Heledd Fychan MS, Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for International Affairs, talks about the People’s Vaccine and its role in the global fight against COVID-19.
I can still remember how I felt when the news first reached me that scientists working in labs around the world had created the first successful vaccine against COVID-19.
It’s fitting that the first vaccine to be approved – Pfizer BioNTech – was the result of international collaboration, and that at its launch, the CEO of BioNTech remarked “This is a global pandemic, which requires a global effort.”
I also remember the worry I felt whist waiting for my parents to get their vaccine invitation, the sense of anticipation in waiting for my invite, and the sense of relief to have the vaccine programme rolled out across the wider community: this extra layer of protection against a devastating virus has been a source of comfort for many of us. Indeed, having been myself diagnosed with Covid this week, I feel fortunate that I am in the best possible position to fight the virus having been double-vaccinated thanks to our wonderful NHS.
As at today, there are 25 vaccines currently approved for use across the world, four of which have been approved for use in the UK. The success of the vaccine programme – across all 4 nations of the UK – has meant that we’ve already begun our booster programme. A boost in our defences and a boost to our hope that we may get through this pandemic.
But that sense of relief turned to surprise, and then outrage when I realised that this has not been the experience for millions of people around the world. While we are able to take comfort in the fact that 78% of our population has received at least one jab, when you look at the countries with the lowest income, just 6.5% of people have received a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
That’s 14 out of 15 people in the poorest countries yet to receive a single dose of the vaccine.
When you have high income countries - who have long been hoarding vaccine stock - already starting their booster programme, while low income countries are yet to administer a single dose to the vast majority of their population, it’s actually just 0.7 percent of all vaccines that have been administered in low income countries.
This matters, because nobody’s safe until we’re all safe.
The longer the virus has to circulate freely amongst us, the more chances it will have to mutate. The more it mutates, the less likely these vaccines will be effective against it. So rich countries, in hoarding vaccines, and keeping them from poorer countries, are helping create the conditions that could see those vaccines no longer being effective – certainly posing an even greater risk to us all.
And this is before we look at the moral argument. A vaccine should be administered based on need. What we have in our world is a vaccine that has been distributed based on nationality and wealth. While the virus does not discriminate, access to vaccines has been anything but equal.
There is also a strong economic argument for re-distributing vaccines to where they are needed, not just to those countries which can afford them. The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that countries with less than 60% of their population vaccinated by mid-2022 will suffer GDP losses of $2.3 trillion by 2025, which will send these countries into longer-term debt, increase poverty rates, and worsen healthcare systems.
What makes it even worse is that the recent admission from Westminster revealed that 600,000 doses of the vaccine had to be destroyed in August because they were no longer suitable for use. This was due to a change in UK policy on the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, meaning we could no longer use them. We threw away thousands of vaccines that could have been sent abroad. In Wales, 40,000 doses were thrown away rather than used abroad.
Even if we didn’t have the vaccines to spare, there is so much more that Wales, and the rest of the UK could be doing to help the global effort in terms of our knowledge, medical supplies, or even vaccine recipes. Intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines could be removed, and the knowledge made public. Yet we have a situation in which AstraZeneca, whose vaccine was created in the UK, and whose vaccine was 97.6% funded through public and philanthropic means, announced that it was going to move away from providing its COVID-19 vaccine to countries on a not-for-profit basis.
We in Wales have a responsibility, as a higher income country, to assist with the provision of global financial support, medical supplies and, of course, sharing vaccine supplies. This means providing greater support to those countries we already have connections with, reaching out to other countries in need, and pushing the UK Government to do what is morally right and redistribute vaccines to where they are needed and waive intellectual property rights on the vaccine
At the start of the pandemic the greatest barrier to overcoming it was science, but now it is inequality. Wales has a responsibility to play its part in bringing an end to this pandemic, because – and it’s important that we keep repeating this message – nobody is safe from this terrible virus until we are all safe.