Around the globe, countries are under extreme pressure to secure COVID-19 vaccines and deliver them to citizens.
Corruption poses serious risks to equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. A lack of transparency over the development, procurement, allocation, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines threatens the global COVID-19 recovery.
Overcoming the wealth gap
To date, high-income countries have purchased more than half the supply of COVID-19 vaccines, while low-income countries have been largely left behind.
With limited supply and high demand, wealthier countries are paying more to guarantee access to COVID-19 vaccines for their citizens, at the expense of developing countries with fewer resources.
Only 14 per cent of the world’s COVID-19 vaccines have been purchased by COVAX, a global initiative to provide fair and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines.
COVAX harnesses collective buying power to purchase vaccines and distribute them to developing countries that can’t compete with wealthy countries in securing contracts for vaccines.
But pitting countries in direct competition with each other is not the way out of the pandemic. Ending the pandemic will take nothing less than a collective global effort. Despite the many restrictions on trade and travel imposed by governments around the world, it is clear that the virus does not recognise national borders.
Vaccines should be distributed on principles of equity, with frontline health workers receiving their doses first, followed by those most vulnerable by age or health.
In practice, however, the reality is more of a free-for-all. The wealthy and powerful use their influence to ensure access, while low-income families lose out, steadily eroding their trust in the systems and governments that are supposed to protect them.
COVID-19 vaccine delivery is ripe for corruption
Given the great demand for COVID-19 vaccines, they are a high-value target for criminal and corrupt networks.
Robust distribution plans are needed to ensure vaccines are not stolen or diverted and to protect against fake or faulty vaccines from entering the market, including from sources like organised crime.
In a lucrative market for COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, bribery is a huge challenge, particularly at the places where people access health care.
Corruption during COVID-19 has already been reported in a host of countries, many of which have neither equitable nor transparent vaccine distribution plans.
Governments spend about 30 per cent of their budgets on public procurement. In the health sector, approximately seven per cent is lost to corruption and inefficiency.
Corruption in public procurement remains a risk as countries develop contracts with pharmaceutical companies to procure vaccines. Contracts and pricing agreements between governments and pharmaceutical companies often remain confidential, despite the drugs being paid for with taxpayer money.
Opaque contracts that keep the price and terms of vaccine purchases secret can hide corruption risks such as conflicts of interest.
People have the right to obtain information about the vaccines they receive. Access to information is a human right, particularly when it concerns our health.
In some countries, indemnity agreements protect vaccine companies against lawsuits. Since these agreements are often confidential, it is difficult to know with whom or where responsibility lies in the event of a dispute.
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for more information on COVID-19 contracts have been submitted by citizens and civil society groups in some countries. However, many requests have been denied.
Access to information can help prevent corruption
Without critical information about the nature and costs of COVID-19 vaccine contracts, it is virtually impossible for citizens to demand accountability.
Access to information can help prevent corruption, including the abuse of public resources, conflicts of interest and bribery. It also helps the public have a clear and accurate understanding of issues that have a major impact on their lives. In the context of COVID-19 vaccination programmes, this helps manage expectations, build trust in government, and uncover misinformation.
Confidentiality may be necessary in some cases to protect proprietary information about vaccine formulas and other patent considerations. However, confidentiality clauses should not be used to deny the public their right to information about costs paid with public resources, the quantity of vaccines purchased, contractual conditions, or the distribution timeline.
A lack of transparency during the research and development process can lead to citizens losing trust in vaccines, hampering the distribution process while making it easier for misinformation that disregards science and data to sow public distrust.
Some countries also lack sufficient data about citizens to ensure an effective and targeted roll-out. Gaps in data may obscure who is eligible for a vaccine, where they live, or if they have health conditions that prioritise their place in line. This makes the vaccine allocation process more susceptible to political and social bias that could cost lives.
We have a long way to go to achieve widespread COVID-19 vaccine coverage, with most countries, particularly those in Africa, Asia and Latin America, not likely to achieve full coverage until as late as 2023.
Unfortunately, the longer it takes for people to access vaccines across the globe, the more opportunities there are for the virus to mutate or change, which will have enormous health and economic consequences worldwide.
We can save millions of lives and trillions of dollars by working together to distribute COVID-19 treatments and vaccines in a fair, equitable, and transparent way.
What citizens can do
Corruption will only stop when people work together to change the system. Reporting corruption and petitioning governments for transparency about vaccinations is an effective way to help ensure a fair and equitable response and recovery and assert citizens’ rights.
Citizens have the right to know how government decisions are made and resources are spent, especially when it comes to our health.
To help people understand their rights and request critical information about COVID-19 vaccines, Transparency International created a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request template.
For assistance with completing your COVID-19 vaccine FOIA request or to report corruption related to COVID-19, please contact one of our Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs) or a Transparency International national chapter.
This article was updated on 5 March 2021
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