By Gwynne Dyer
We can all (or almost all) agree that the most vulnerable should get the vaccines first: care-home residents, health workers, over-70’s, and people with serious underlying diseases. Among adults under 50 who catch Covid-19, only 200 out of a million die; among those over 70, 54,000 do. So everybody else can afford to wait another month or so, and let the vulnerable go first.
But who is ‘we’? Almost always it means vulnerable people in our own country, not in the whole world. Is there any hope that the rich countries will share their vaccines with poor countries far away?
As it turns out, maybe yes. The European Union’s 27 nations have 960 million doses of five different vaccines on order, with options for several hundred million more. That’s enough for everybody in the EU with plenty left over.
The United Kingdom has 250 million doses on order from the same five companies (Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford/Astra/Zeneca, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson). That’s more than twice as much as the UK could possibly use.
The United States has orders with six companies for 800 million doses, with options on another 1.6 billion. There are only 330 million Americans, of whom 250 million at most will be vaccinated.
And Canada has bought 214 million doses of vaccine, with options on 200 million more. There are 38 million Canadians, so say 30 million recipients. Canada will have at least 150 million doses left over – or 350 million, if it exercises its options.
This all happened because these countries pre-bought large quantities of many different vaccines in order to be sure of having some winners. The vaccines almost all worked, so we are in the happy situation of looming over-supply.
There are more than 800 million spare doses already bought and paid for worldwide – two billion, if everybody exercises their options, as they should. And the countries that put their money down should start sharing the vaccines soon, not wait until after everybody has been inoculated at home.
‘Vaccine nationalism’ is not an all-or-none thing. Nobody can criticise Britain, for example, for putting its own most vulnerable people first – but it is on schedule to have them all done by the middle of this month.
As soon as that is accomplished, it should share some of its supply to save the lives of elderly French and Danes and Greeks (the EU is running late on vaccinations) rather than devoting it all to its own relatively safe middle-aged people. And as other supplies come online, it should share more widely, too.
Within a few months, as more vaccines are approved and production ramps up, more doses will become available to the rich countries each day than can be injected into their citizens in the same day.
“Absolutely we will be sharing with the world,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The leaders of other rich countries should be saying the same thing – and if anybody objects (as some certainly will), it should be explained to them gently that this is not charity; it’s self-interest.
So long as the virus is circulating widely in poorer countries, it constitutes an enormous reservoir in which new mutations will occur frequently. Some of those mutations might render existing vaccines ineffective. The vaccines can be tweaked to deal with new variants, but we don’t want to be playing catch-up for the next five years.