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Vaccine Nationalism Is Patently Unjust

Nairobi—In March 2021, Kenya announced its plan to vaccinate its 48 million residents against Covid-19. The government, according to its own documents, aims to inoculate just 30 percent of the population: citizens over 50, those that work in health and in hospitality (tourism is a major earner for the country), and those with comorbidities. The authorities have made it clear: There is no proposal for the rest of us—no aspiration even to achieve herd immunity through vaccination.

All of this would be egregious enough if it weren’t happening against the backdrop of perhaps the worst display of national selfishness in modern history. The European Union, United States, and Canada have hoarded the vaccine, prepurchasing doses for up to six times their population in some cases. Moreover, because of national agreements with the pharmaceutical companies, they are buying the vaccines at preferential prices. The European Union, for example, is paying $2.15 for each dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, while South Africa is spending $5.25 for the same drug. Poor countries are paying more for the scraps that remain after rich countries have had their fill.

Wealthy countries are using their control over lifesaving interventions to play diplomacy. The United States, for example, has ordered 300 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, nearly enough for every person in the country—but the FDA hasn’t approved the drug yet. At least 7 million doses have been delivered and remain in storage, with another 20 million expected by the end of April. The United States has already reserved enough of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for every American, but, instead of freeing up the AstraZeneca doses, has pledged to send just 4 million to Canada and Mexico and stayed mum about what will happen to the rest of the oversupply.

Meanwhile, the COVAX initiative led by the World Health Organization is designed to oversee the distribution of vaccines to poor countries. But rich countries have been slow to support COVAX, and Canada is even actively undermining it by joining the initiative, thereby making whatever scarce doses it acquires through the program even scarcer. Right now, the two most effective vaccines are made by Moderna and Pfizer. Moderna has declined to join the COVAX initiative and is charging the United States $30 for the required two shots and the European Union $36, resulting in billions for a company that is only 11 years old and had not made a profit until this year. Pfizer, on the other hand, has only committed 40 million doses of its vaccine to COVAX.

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