The Real Priority: Vaccine Inequity During the Pandemic
Updated: May 2, 2022
April 24, 2022 ⋅ 1:30 P.M ⋅ Writer: Pritesh Patel ⋅ Editors: Susan Chamling & Megan Lu ⋅
COVID-19 first started in December of 2019, but it wasn’t until March 11, 2020 that the World Health Organization deemed the virus a pandemic. People worldwide patiently waited for a vaccine that would help us take the first step towards a return to normalcy. During the first half of 2021, COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson were starting to be administered to individuals worldwide. Two years after the pandemic started and a year after vaccines were approved for distribution, different countries worldwide are at various stages of country-wide vaccination. The current goal for countries worldwide is to get to 100% vaccination, with each country implementing its own unique policies, incentives, and programs. However, amidst this global race to reach complete population immunity, many countries are disproportionately facing a vaccine shortage, leading to many subset issues rooted in long-standing medical inequity.
Many of the world’s leading countries started their journey on reaching full immunization in January of 2021, which has immensely impacted the supply and demand of vaccine production. Compared to the pre-COVID era, vaccine manufacturers have nearly tripled their production rates. Still, with increased demand from leading countries, many parts of the world continue to face vaccine shortages. According to the U.S. News, “medical experts and political leaders are comparing the inequity in access to the vaccine to apartheid…the term ‘vaccine apartheid’ is increasingly being used to describe the divide between the world’s richest and poorest countries in vaccine access” (Healy).
Several countries such as India are struggling to compete with wealthy countries such as the United States in terms of vaccination rates and access. India has a population of 1.38 billion; meanwhile, the United States has a population of 329 million. With a higher amount of financial stability and a lower population, the United States has been able to expedite its vaccination rates. In mid-June of 2021, the United States had a total vaccination rate of 47% while India had a vaccination rate of just 3.5%, and in January of 2022, the US had a rate of 75% in comparison to India’s rate of only 48% (Ritchie). It is clear to see that the United States, with a smaller population and a higher amount of funding, is nearly doubling India in terms of vaccination rates. However, India’s slow vaccination rate is due to the fact that the country is not being given enough vaccine availability in proportion to its population. This shows a major problem surrounding vaccine production. Companies such as Pfizer and Moderna are not making contracts with other countries so that they can produce the vaccine themselves. As a result, countries such as India are relying on shipments of the vaccine which are leading to delays and a slower vaccination process. In order to further increase their profit, western pharmaceutical companies are not releasing the patent surrounding their vaccines so that other countries can produce them. Achal Prabhala, an author on the letter signed by Indian civil society groups urging U.S. President Biden to pressure Johnson & Johnson into partnering with the global south, calls their arguments “a useful canard that obscures the real barrier — an unwillingness on the part of western pharmaceutical companies to relinquish control over their patents and technology, even at the cost of millions of lives” (Maxmen).
India reached a peak in vaccination rates in September of 2021 due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s national request to get vaccinated on his birthday. Following this plan, India set up vaccination drives throughout the rest of the year but “faced challenges such as supply constraints due to raw materials shortages, logistical issues, and vaccine hesitancy” (Menon). In India, the primary vaccines that are being administered are two locally manufactured vaccines known as Covishield and Covaxin and Sputnik, a vaccine created and manufactured in Russia. Within the first half of 2022, India has increased the amount of local vaccine manufacturing, but the country now faces the dilemma of having enough vaccines but not enough demand from members of the population who have become discouraged due to the damaging effects of the Omicron variant.
India is currently facing two significant problems related to medical inequity. The first problem was that the country could not produce enough vaccines for the heightened demand in the latter half of 2021 due to the financial burden of increasing manufacturing. Additionally, India was facing conflict in importing foreign-made vaccines due to “legal hurdles over the manufacturers’ desire for protection against potential claims arising out of using vaccines” (Menon). With a lack of financial funding to increase internal manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines and a lack of cooperation by foreign vaccine companies, India was backed into a corner when it came to protecting its population. However, a second problem related to medical inequity has arisen in the first half of 2022. With supplies now being up, demand has greatly decreased due to increased fear amongst the population about the safety of the vaccines being made in India and the discouraging effects of the Omicron variant on fully vaccinated individuals. Vaccine education and increased scientific literacy during this time have been a privilege amongst the world's wealthiest countries. Nations such as the United States have poured millions of dollars into education programs that have helped lower the fear and hesitation surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. However, countries such as India, which have been financially struggling to produce vaccines, do not have the economic privilege to create long-term and widespread education plans. Such education plans are far more expensive to conduct in India than the United States due to the added factor of India’s population and the location of this population in many non-urbanized areas.
In the middle of this ever-changing pandemic, India's reality follows the same hardship as many other countries such as Kenya, Bolivia, and Pakistan in its vaccine shortage. When dealing with a global pandemic, it is the job of governmental leaders to create unity amongst countries to provide aid in this time. However, during this time, we as citizens of these countries have the ability to push government leaders to take action through voting, raising awareness within our own community, and using our voice. While various countries will return to normalcy due to the privilege of financial stability, the world is still in the process of recovering. The medical inequity surrounding vaccines and COVID-19 reflects an even greater problem within healthcare, which is the prioritization of profit over people. Around the world millions of individuals have lost their lives to this deadly virus, and with a vaccine out that can offer some form of protection, healthcare officials and governments are wasting time arguing about patents and finances when the real priority should be saving human lives.
Healy, Claire. “‘Vaccine Apartheid’ Risks Rising Global Shortages in 2022 ...” Worries Over Growing Vaccine Shortages in 2022, U.S. News & World Report L.P., 4 Jan. 2022, https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2022-01-04/vaccine-apartheid-risks-rising-global-shortages-in-2022.
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Maxmen, Amy. “The Fight to Manufacture Covid Vaccines in Lower-Income Countries.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 15 Sept. 2021, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02383-z.
Menon, Shruti. “Covid-19: How India Missed Its Vaccination Target.” BBC News, BBC, 31 Dec. 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-55571793.
Ritchie, Hannah, et al. “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Vaccinations.” Our World in Data, Global Change Data Lab, 5 Mar. 2020, https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations#citation.