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The scientists have done it” the Prime Minister declared on December 2nd, after the first Covid-19 vaccine received regulatory approval. By February 14th all healthcare workers, adults over 70 and those who were shielding had been invited for vaccination.  These people were among Britain’s most vulnerable, accounting for 88% of our country’s previous 127,000 deaths from Covid-19. 

As of today, 37 million vaccine doses have been given in the UK, protecting over half our population, including those with serious underlying health conditions and the overwhelming majority of adults over 50. The Government and our hardworking NHS workers should all be congratulated for such a massive achievement.

The UK’s vaccine roll out is likely to proceed smoothly, meeting the Prime Minister’s target of offering a first dose to all British adults by the end of July. However, our experience here in the UK is rather unlike that in most of the world, where vaccine rollouts have been beset by serious obstacles. Though states in the EU have been vaccinating more slowly than the UK, they have nonetheless made much more progress than the world’s developing states. 

African nations such as Mauritania and Mali have vaccinated less than 1% of their populations, with only 643 vaccinations administered in the latter. Even wealthier African nations like South Africa, which has been ravaged by a new, more infectious variant of Covid-19, have still only managed to vaccinate around 10% of their population. Furthermore, given the lack of robust data on vaccination rates in many low income countries, it is virtually impossible to assess how the developing world as a whole is proceeding in the fight against Covid-19.    

Vaccine inequality between rich and poor nations is likely to widen, as the majority of new vaccine doses go to wealthy states like Britain, whose vulnerable people are already protected. Dr Tedros Adhanom, the General Director of the World Health Organisation, has been a vocal critic of what he refers to as the “vaccine nationalism” of rich states, claiming that the world is  “on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure” the price of which “will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries”. 

Covax, which aims to deliver two billion vaccine doses to low and middle income states, is woefully inadequate and unable to correct the vast vaccine inequality between rich and poor states. Although Covax has delivered millions of vaccines to developing nations, it is doing so too slowly and in too small quantities. For example, Somalia received 300,000 doses of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine through Covax, yet this is only enough to provide a single dose to around 2% of their 15.44 million person population. 

One reason for this is a lack of funding, another is the fact that wealthy states like New Zealand and Canada have drawn on Covax supplies to vaccinate their own populations. Despite Covax, rich states like Britain are still being delivered millions of doses, despite having already vaccinated the most vulnerable groups in society. So, should we really be vaccinating British 18 and 19 year olds so that they can safely return to pubs and clubs, while vulnerable people in the developing world continue to die from Covid-19?  

Beyond the moral considerations that liberal, democratic societies should make regarding the well-being of the vulnerable globally, a more equitable global vaccine redistribution is preferable from both an economic and public health standpoint. If it takes years for developing countries to vaccinate their citizens, then the virus could develop strains that render vaccines ineffective. Already, a South African variant has been found which is resistant to the AstraZeneca vaccine which has been used to inoculate the majority of the British population. Vaccinating our citizens might prevent the emergence of new variants in the UK, but Covid doesn’t respect national borders and vaccine resistant strains emerging abroad will inevitably reach our shores. 

Global vaccine redistribution could help to prevent the emergence of new variants that threaten to undermine all the progress Britain has made over the last few months. Critics of global vaccine redistribution often prioritise economic concerns over worries about virus mutations, stressing the importance of safely reopening Britain’s retail and hospitality industries. Yet, the best way to protect these sectors is to avoid the further lockdowns that could follow were vaccine resistant strains of Covid-19 to spread in Britain. Moreover, these arguments overlook the fact that  vaccine redistribution could actually help the recovery of the British economy, which is heavily reliant upon trade partners in emerging and developing markets. Until poor countries can get Covid-19 under control, via vaccination, their reduced imports and exports of both goods and services will cause a non-negligible drag on developed economies like the UK’s. 

The UK has led the world in its domestic vaccine rollout, now we should look beyond our borders and make similar progress redistributing vaccinations to vulnerable populations worldwide – the sooner the better. 

George is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Number 10]