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Ending “Trickle-Down” Vaccine Economics

Rich countries’ ability to manipulate the market for COVID-19 vaccines is putting millions of lives at risk and inhibiting the global recovery from the pandemic. These countries must instead prioritize equitable vaccine distribution and international cooperation.

LONDON – During the Irish famine in the 1840s, as more than one million Irish citizens died, vast quantities of food were exported from Ireland to Britain. For the Whig government in London, the defense of commercial interests, the dictates of laissez-faire economics, and political indifference to Irish suffering trumped any obligation to prevent mass starvation by intervening in markets.

The international response to the COVID-19 pandemic bears a discomfiting resemblance to the British response to the Irish famine. Although science and industry have given us the means to immunize the world, nine months after the first arm was jabbed with a COVID-19 vaccine, rich countries are using their market power to direct doses away from poor countries, placing millions of lives at risk.

Consider some recent actions by the European Union. Under a contract with Johnson & Johnson (J&J), the bloc has imported millions of vaccine doses from a company in South Africa – a country where a mere 11% of the population is vaccinated and the Delta variant is fueling a surge in cases. Yet efforts to divert vaccine exports from Europe to South Africa and its neighbors were met with a display of vaccine gunboat diplomacy, with the EU threatening to take action under a clause in the J&J contract prohibiting export restrictions.

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