This week, the world took a collective sigh of relief as the German company BioNTech and its US partner Pfizer announced promising results from the trial of a vaccine that could be up to 90 per cent effective against COVID-19.
More than eight months after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, this is positive news. As a global community, we now have an opportunity to make stronger, more transparent and better-performing health systems the legacy of COVID-19; health systems better prepared to tackle future pandemics. Will we seize it?
While the vaccine news has given us hope, we cannot ignore the many challenges corruption has posed in the global response to the pandemic. The same devastating lack of transparency in procuring protective equipment and the misuse of COVID-19 funds that we’ve seen in many countries cannot be allowed to undermine the purchase and distribution of this or other vaccines.
Whilst there have been concerted efforts at the international level to ensure there is equitable distribution of an eventual vaccine between countries through the COVAX facility, many countries have not fully developed equitable and transparent distribution plans. Get distribution wrong, and we will fail to defeat COVID-19.
The question is, of course, who gets the vaccine first? As coveted as it will be, companies and governments are already warning of supply and distribution challenges.
Secretive bilateral deals between pharmaceutical companies and governments have flourished, leaving it to journalists and the civil society to expose their actual terms and amounts and even, sometimes, worrisome conflicts of interests. In September, wealthy nations representing 13 per cent of the world’s population had secured 51 per cent of the promised doses of leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates.
Vaccine nationalism is a threat both to fair and equitable access and to the efficient tackling of the pandemic. No one country can solve this problem until all countries solve it through concerted, transparent global action.
Even if international processes such as the WHO’s Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator manage to ensure vaccines doses are fairly shared internationally, the question remains: who gets the vaccine first? National distribution and health care services must also transparently communicate and be held accountable when they decide on vaccine rollout plans.
Limited supply and a lack of transparency will become a breeding ground for corruption if we don’t take measures now to prevent it. Our Global Corruption Barometer research already shows health care services are susceptible to bribery. To avoid a COVID-19 vaccine lottery where those who can pay get access first, governments must ensure that – both internationally and nationally – vaccine distribution is done in the fairest, least discriminatory, most strategic way possible.
If we are to emerge out of the health and economic crisis stronger, transparency has to be at the heart of government vaccine purchase and distribution strategies.
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