News Coronavirus Entrenching inequalities: Dark side of the race for a coronavirus vaccine
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Entrenching inequalities: Dark side of the race for a coronavirus vaccine

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It’s the race every nation is clamouring to win: Be the first to acquire a coronavirus vaccine and safely inoculate its population.

But the nationalistic race to gain successful COVID-19 candidates may also risk further entrenching the divide between rich and poor nations.

Forecasts suggest a vaccine could be available early next year, but researchers are warning that it might not be physically possible to make enough vaccine for everyone, and rich countries might hoard supplies.

Associate Professor Adam Kamradt-Scott, a global health expert at the University of Sydney, said wealthy countries entering advanced purchasing agreements with manufacturers is a part of the problem.

“In effect, this locks up supplies,” he told The New Daily.

“The WHO, with its COVAX initiative, is trying to get countries to agree to a collective approach.”

Australia signed letters of intent with Astra-Zeneca for the University of Oxford vaccine candidate, and CSL for the University of Queensland candidate worth more than $1.7 billion if the orders are fulfilled.

And we aren’t the only country looking to be first in line.

An Oxford researcher with a vial of the vaccine. Photo: Oxford University

The United States, the UK and Canada are just a few nations that have signed deals for vaccines – even for amounts in excess of what they might need, Professor Kamradt-Scott said.

“There’s only going to be so much supply that can be produced in any one year, so with advanced purchasing agreements, the high-income countries have bought up about three billion doses already.

“Canada has signed agreements for 114 million doses of vaccine, and they’ve got a population of about 36 million. The UK has bought enough vaccine already for five doses per person.”

“They’re entered into these agreements before these vaccines have been proven yet. They’re all trying to pip each other at the post, to get the vaccines first.”

But through the COVAX facility – an organisation established through the World Health Organisation and other international agencies – there is an “insurance policy” for nations to access a suite of vaccine candidates.

On Wednesday, Australia signed onto COVAX in the hope of gaining early access to dozens of potential vaccines.

The deal guarantees Australia access to enough vaccine doses for up to 50 per cent of the population after committing an initial $123 million to be part of the purchasing pool.

“It means that we’ll have access to any of potentially dozens and dozens of different vaccines that are being developed,” federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Wednesday.

This is Australia’s second commitment to the facility after donating $80 million in August to provide doses to developing countries.

But not every country is willing to put global interests first.

Trump fires at China, WHO

US president Donald Trump, facing a November re-election battle and the US dealing with the world’s highest number of deaths, focussed his speech at the United Nations on attacking China and the World Health Organisation.

Mr Trump has previously halted funding to the WHO, and has commited to terminating the US’ relationship with the global agency entirely.

“We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world, China,” he said in remarks taped on Tuesday (AEST) and delivered remotely to the General Assembly due to the pandemic.

“The Chinese government, and the World Health Organisation – which is virtually controlled by China – falsely declared that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission,” he said.

“Later, they falsely said people without symptoms would not spread the disease … The United Nations must hold China accountable for their actions.”

The president promised to distribute a vaccine and said: “We will defeat the virus, and we will end the pandemic.”

The WHO rejected Mr Trump’s remarks.

“No one gov’t controls us,” its communications director, Gabby Stern tweeted, adding: “On Jan. 14 our #COVID19 technical lead told media of the potential for human-to-human transmission. Since February, our experts have publicly discussed transmission by people without symptoms or prior to symptoms.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin told the General Assembly the WHO should be strengthened to coordinate the global response to the pandemic and proposed a high-level conference on vaccine cooperation.

As nations continue to jockey for position, Professor Adam Kamradt-Scott said Russia was obviously keen to demonstrate global leadership.

“The politics behind it is quite clear when you think they named it Sputnik. That was the first vessel into Space, and they’re drawing that explicit link, declaring to the world ‘We did it first’.”

“They can use that politically to highlight how they are a global leader, how they got there first versus the United States.

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