Aisha Bailey | Are we to blame for global disparities in COVID-19 vaccine distribution?
I recently saw a post on social media from a colleague that pointed out that 75 per cent of all vaccines administered globally were in only 10 countries. The rest of us are essentially waiting in a long line for the much-needed vaccines, recognising it as a significant part of an integrated solution to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.
This kind of ‘widely and unfair’ distribution of the vaccine, as UN Secretary General António Guterres describes it, is not new. Too often we observe the 80/20 principle at play, where 20 per cent of the world’s population, often in the ‘global north’, have access to 80 per cent of technologies of national importance. This is seen not only in health, but manufacturing, energy, transportation, and communication, to name a few.
The knee-jerk reaction is probably to think that the system is pinned against us, and we bring into question the morality or foreign and trade policies of wealthy countries. But I beg for a moment that we consider this.
What do all 10 of these countries have in common? They have all developed vaccines. Those governments, as part of their emergency response to the COVID-19 crisis, have invested in research and development (R&D) as part of the emergency response to the crisis. In other words, they are literally creating the solution (R&D, technology, innovation) to their problem (the pandemic). From masks to hand sanitisers, to thermal scanners to vaccines, R&D is a significant part of their national public-health policy.
And this policy approach isn’t just for this moment.
THRUST ON R&D
Unlike Jamaica, which spends under 0.1 per cent of our money into R&D in any given year, countries like the United States invest in excess of two per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) each year. This investment is a strategic one by federal governments. But why do they continue to spend so much on university, business, and government R&D?
For two main reasons.
One. It has been shown time and time again that if you want your economy to grow, invest in R&D. Case in point. This pandemic will create significant economic growth for vaccine-creating countries. Their investments in building capacity for drug R&D will pay off big time, and these earnings will continue to grow for generations to come. On the other hand, countries like ours will suffer economically because of significant spend on these technologies from other countries. And this imbalance in trade isn’t only for vaccines. Every single dollar we spend on technology that Jamaicans consume but didn’t create, such as Netflix, oil, rice, smart phones et cetera, is a return on R&D investment for other countries that created them. Expanding R&D investment is common-sense and smart economic policy.
Second. Sustained, strategic, and significant investment in R&D means that a nation is more resilient to crisis. The superheroes of the COVID-19 story are scientists. When countries like India deliberately increased investment in drug development, they didn’t do it specifically for SARS-CoV-2. No one could foresee this predicament. But they knew that science was their insurance policy - the best one to have. By steadily financing science education, research labs, equipment, hospitals, healthcare human resources, technology transfer, and science literacy, they prepared their people for the inevitable. They prepared India for today - life during a pandemic of epic proportions. They are one of the few in the global South leading in its innovative response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
ARE WE TO BLAME?
So with our meagre investments in our local R&D capacity along no clear national R&D policy as part of the response to COVID-19, are we to blame for the global disparities in COVID-19 distribution?
If the National Science and Technology Policy of 1990 was taken seriously and we did in fact “increase funding for R&D as a national priority and rationalise various incomes, taxes, services, and revenues earned by S&T (science and technology) institutions to form one major S&T fund for development”, would we have already started vaccinating Jamaicans and selling vaccines to the rest of the world? I think so.
Will we now take seriously the soon-to-be National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy: Catalysing National Development 2019-2029, where Jamaica will “make demonstrable progress in addressing health, improving quality of life, and developing new competitive economic activities to serve local, regional, and global markets?” I hope so.
But if not and we refuse to better integrate the scientific community in the national-development agenda, then we are to blame. Slow economic growth and insecurities that plague us are a direct result of our lack of will and failing science policies, not others. So, we will just have to join the proverbial long line, hold out our hand, and wait our turn for a vaccine.
But let us better prepare for the next time.
Aisha Bailey, PhD, is a scientist and consultant supporting research and development across academia, private sector and government. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.