Mon | Jan 24, 2022

Editorial | Beyond the politics of vaccines

Published:Monday | March 29, 2021 | 12:09 AM

When criticised for being too cosy with Donald Trump, the Holness administration would characterise its foreign policy as non-aligned pragmatism, which allowed it to grab advantages wherever they existed. It is an approach that the Government has good reason to now deploy, given the growing nationalism and geopolitical manoeuvrings over COVID-19 vaccines.

At a virtual summit last Thursday, European Union (EU) leaders gave their backing, in principle, to possible tougher controls on the export of vaccines. “I support the fact that we must block exports for as long as some drug companies don’t respect their commitments to Europeans,” said French president, Emmanuel Macron.

For “some drug companies”, read AstraZeneca, the Anglo-Swedish firm, one of whose manufacturing facilities was visited by Italian police investigating a claim that it was preparing to export to Britain 29 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines which properly ought to have gone to the EU. The vaccines, in fact, were for other clients, including some covered under the COVAX facility, of which Jamaica is a beneficiary. Last week, too, India – which made a gift of 50,000 doses to Jamaica – suspended exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine – manufactured under licence by its Serum Institute of India – because of a spiralling of COVID-19 cases on the subcontinent.


So, despite last week’s disclosure by National Health Fund (NHF) chairman, Howard Mitchell, that the agency had procured 20,000 doses of the vaccines developed by Moderna and approved for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), this isn’t good news for Jamaica. It could possibly throw askew the island’s vaccination timetable and weaken people’s confidence in the project. That is, unless the Government can pivot to alternative sources of the drug, while at the same time having an honest conversation with citizens about the global supply problems and some of the geopolitics around vaccine availability. These issues include how rich countries cornered the market for vaccines.

In Europe, Britain was earlier in making deals with manufacturers than the EU, which was poor at forecasting the production bottlenecks that hamper supplies. There is greater vaccine scepticism on the continent than in the United Kingdom (UK) – a situation that was not helped by the start-stop approach of some EU governments to the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine among some age groups. Unsparingly, the rate of vaccination in Britain is more than three times greater than in the EU: 47.6 doses administered per 100 persons in the UK by March 27, against 14.3 per 100 on the continent.

But the Europeans also claim that suppliers, AstraZeneca in particular, have not met their obligations to the EU. It rejects allegations of nascent vaccine nationalism. It has exported, the EU says, over 77 million doses to 33 countries since December 2020, including 10.9 million to the UK. The bottom line, however, is that there is now great pressure on vaccine manufacturers in Europe to supply the EU. That will have a knock-in effect, even if an export ban doesn’t materialise, of slowing exports.

India has nearly 1.4 billion people. Less than four per cent of them have been vaccinated. In the face of the surge in the virus, and greater demand domestically and abroad for the AstraZeneca jab, rather than India’s home-grown vaccines, New Delhi has put the brakes on the export. This further complicates the global supply chain.


However, vaccines developed by the big Western pharmaceutical companies are not the only ones available. Last summer, the Russians were the first out of the blocks with a COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V. Moscow’s declarations about the drug’s safety and efficacy were greeted with derision by Western scientists and political commentators. The concern, ostensibly, was about the absence of scientific data.

The dispute, however, felt less like science but part of the reprised Cold War between Russia and the West. Sputnik V has won significant vindication from the prestigious science magazine Lancet. However, a review by the European Medicine Agency (EMA) for its use in the EU has been dogged by disputes over the state of the application and a sense of the vaccine is being caught in geopolitical considerations.

Nonetheless, EU members Hungary and Slovakia have given emergency authorisation to Sputnik V, and the Czech Republic is also considering doing the same. More than 30 other countries have either opted to use the drug or are considering it. The Chinese also have COVID-19 vaccines on the market, which several countries, including Indonesia, Turkey, Brazil, Uruguay and Laos, among others, have given emergency authorisation.

Jamaica needs between 3.4 and 3.7 million doses of vaccines to inoculate sufficient numbers of its population to reach the herd immunity required to fully contain the coronavirus. A substantial part of that has been promised, but there is no clarity as to when these will be available if our search is trumped by geopolitical rather than purely health considerations.