There may also be another disparity. There are many people who, even if you offer them the vaccine, will not take it. And that’s partly because of the distrust. There is a much higher level of distrust among Latino and Black Americans, partly because of historical mistreatment.
Q: How are you seeing mistrust affect global vaccination disparities more globally?
A: When we think about mistrust on a global scale, that may be partly because of how the pharmaceutical industry prices things and how they have patents. Some countries may be thinking, “these companies from the US or Europe are really trying to sell us their expensive vaccines. But we can’t really afford them for our population in the first place because they are patented, and we are not allowed to just make a generic version of it.” They may be thinking “these companies are just trying to take advantage of us.” And there certainly have been examples of lower-income countries that have been exploited by the pharmaceutical industry.
In Indonesia, for example, this happened with H5N1. Whenever there’s an outbreak, if you’re a WHO member, you send samples to a WHO lab and they try to find out about this particular virus or disease. Based on genetic material sent from Indonesia, scientists developed therapeutics for H5N1 and tried to sell them back to Indonesia. Then Indonesia thought, “OK, these were our samples. Should there not have been collaboration? You’re using them to sell drugs back to us.”
Q: Does the US have a moral obligation to send people to other countries to help with vaccinations?
A: One of the problems is that we’re not able to train enough people in the local places. For Covax or other kinds of international collaboration, it’s not about sending people so much as it’s about “how do we help them build up their own infrastructure?” Even financial resources for training courses or other kinds of ways to beef up their own human resources. Because you can imagine we’d go, and then we’d leave, and they’re not any better in terms of infrastructure.
Q: How would it affect higher-income countries if other, lower-income countries don’t receive their vaccines until later? Recent research says, for example, that if poor countries don’t get vaccines, it will disrupt the economy for everyone.
A: While it’s still likely that at the human level, people in the most vulnerable countries will suffer more, inequitable vaccine allocation definitely will disrupt the supply chain for all, including —perhaps even especially—the wealthiest nations that have come to depend on cheap sources of labor. If supplying nations have lots of people being sick, or they have to shut down, [there are] no workers to process or transport the raw materials, or to manufacture and deliver the products. People in these countries also can’t travel or spend money, which can greatly affect international hotel chains, airlines, and hospitality industries as well.
This would apply within a high-income country too. If undocumented workers, farm workers, homeless people, and others in low-wage jobs can’t get vaccinated, they can’t work to keep the supply chain going. So restaurants, entertainment industries, etc. would suffer. If they can’t pay the rent or mortgage or have extra money, that also affects the rest of the economy.
This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.