Concern Growing over Intense ‘Hoarding’ of COVID-19 Vaccines

Countries around the world are scrambling to secure vaccines to contain the novel coronavirus. It is understandable for countries to put priority on stopping the spread of infections within their own borders, but the intense competition is a cause for concern.

If the “hoarding” of vaccines continues and vaccines are not sufficiently distributed in developing countries, it will slow the containment of the virus worldwide and the normalization of economic activities, which would adversely affect the entire world, including advanced countries. It is necessary to create a supply framework based on international cooperation.

Vaccination has started in about 80 countries, including Japan. About 50% of the population in Israel, more than 20% in Britain and more than 10% in the United States have received at least one shot.

European countries and the United States, where many people have been infected with the virus and have died from COVID-19, have been forced to implement tough restrictions, such as more stringent entry and departure requirements as well as lockdowns, dealing a huge blow to their economies.

It is understandable that there are high expectations for vaccines to be a key factor in speeding up the normalization of social and economic activities.

Many advanced countries have concluded individual contracts with pharmaceutical companies, such as Pfizer Inc. of the United States and AstraZeneca PLC of Britain, to secure the necessary amounts. Moves to hoard vaccines within individual countries have appeared, prompted by pharmaceutical companies’ inability to keep up with demand due to production delays.

The European Union has introduced a system that requires the prior approval of the EU for the export of vaccines produced in the region. The EU can be said to have pressured pharmaceutical companies not to delay the supply of the amount the EU contracted.

The move made it difficult for Japan to know when shipments will arrive because it imports vaccines produced in Europe. The World Health Organization has warned against such self-centered moves, calling it “vaccine nationalism.” This is a natural argument.

Vaccines produced in China, Russia and India are increasingly being supplied to developing countries in such regions as Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. China has been providing its vaccines to 53 countries and regions for free, while Russia is reportedly supplying its vaccines to former Soviet nations and Middle East countries, among others.

Such moves could benefit developing countries, but China and Russia do not disclose enough information about their vaccines. There is criticism that China aims to expand its international influence by using vaccines mainly for export, while at the same time trying to contain its own infections by controlling the movement of its people.

To prevent the political use of vaccines and effectively distribute them to developing countries, it is desirable to utilize the international mechanism of pooled procurement and distribution led by the WHO.

Amid a lack of funding for the mechanism, the Group of Seven advanced countries announced their intention to strengthen assistance for it. Europe, the United States and Japan must take the initiative in distributing vaccines based on international cooperation.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 21, 2021.