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The politics of vaccines

  • 04 February 2021
The name of Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine is telling. Sputnik is of course the first satellite launched into low earth orbit in 1957, heralding the space age and race between the Soviet Union and America. Sputnik V is, according to its website, the first registered COVID-19 vaccine.

One can be forgiven for losing track of the different vaccines and their effectiveness thrown at us by various pharmaceutical companies. Despite talk against ‘vaccine nationalism’ the pharmaceutical companies are ultimately beholden to investors and shareholders. Their effectiveness percentages are pitches. They will sell to those who can afford to buy. And naturally that’s wealthy countries. Selling at cost is likely only to cover the initial rollouts, with future sales to be priced for profit. Whilst many hoarded toilet paper in the early days of the pandemic, vaccines are now being hoarded by the wealthiest nations.

Amnesty International has called for a human rights approach to prioritising vaccines, pointing out the vulnerability of communities such as Indigenous people in the Amazon who face a higher risk due to shortages of water, food and medical resources. Refugees living in unsanitary and crowded camps are also at increased risk. Some have even called out ‘vaccine thieves’.

There is an ethical question that surely needs to be addressed. Does it make moral sense for a country like say New Zealand to vaccinate its population when there is no community spread and when a country like Peru is seeing the second highest death case fatality ratio of the pandemic?

The ‘me first’ mentality which has dominated Western vaccine policy and investment has come under criticism by Amnesty and is emblematic of the non-cooperation that exists in the race to develop a vaccine. This non-cooperation is unsurprising. Rivalry in science logically reflects rivalry in economics and politics. Those who have primacy in a field can dictate the terms of its use. And so, the vaccine rat race is both local competition reflecting the ideals of innovative capitalism and a global articulation of political mistrust and fault lines.

Even the Chinese and Russians who generally find themselves closer politically because of their opposition to US hegemony, seem to practice a ‘me first’ philosophy. Despite Russia claiming that they had the first registered vaccine, China in fact has been vaccinating people earlier throughout 2020. Absent controlled published trials such conduct by China is worrying to say the least.

'Political scores have and continue to be played out