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The International Implications of COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

Corona Covid-19 by Jayaratnam Caniceus

Article by Hayley Durudogan,

On Monday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced the development of a vaccine that is “more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19.” The news was met with worldwide jubilation, providing people across the globe with “a glimmer of hope” that the pandemic would soon be over. The announcement, however, came with a significant, though not immediately discernible disclaimer: “we expect to produce globally up to 50 million vaccine doses in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021.” While the production of 50 million vaccines is no small feat, especially given that there are under two months left in 2020, the development would result in a global immunization rate of just .67% by year’s end, meaning that the end of the pandemic is not so much in sight as it is beyond the horizon. Even with the production of 1.3 billion doses in 2021, only 17.67% of the world’s population would have access to the vaccine. This disheartening revelation raises an ever-present issue in COVID-19 vaccine discussions: distribution.

In the absence of a coordinated distribution strategy, a COVID-19 vaccine could wreak havoc on the global economy and international relations. For instance, nations unable to purchase a vaccine en masse may “in their quest to obtain for any form of leverage they can find, including blocking exports of critical vaccine components, which will lead to the breakdown of supply chains for raw ingredients, syringes and vials.” Other potential issues include disruptions in “cross-border supply chains,” if nations gain access to the vaccine at different rates, and vaccine price inflation due to “countries ‘bidding’ against each other” and thereby “increas[ing] the cost of vaccines for everyone.” Equity concerns about which nations and which individuals will first have access to the vaccine are as troubling as they are complex.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released a distribution plan addressing “vaccine nationalism” and stating the plan’s goal to “vaccinate some people in all countries rather than all the people in some countries.” Vaccine nationalism is the idea that each country should prioritize its own citizens” when it comes to purchasing and distributing a COVID-19 vaccine. Although the rationale of protecting one’s own citizens is “understandable,” the impulse is dangerous. In fact, researchers have asserted that “vaccinating one nation at a time will ultimately prolong the pandemic, lead to more lives lost and continue to devastate the world economy.” Such outcomes are obviously antithetical to the purpose of developing a vaccine in the first place. In a recent Op-Ed, economists Thomas Bollyky and Chad Bown argued that vaccine nationalism could produce:

"not only needless economic and humanitarian hardship but also intense

resentment against vaccine-hoarding countries, which will imperil the kind of

international cooperation that will be necessary to tackle future outbreaks–not

to mention other pressing challenges such as climate change and nuclear


The WHO’s distribution plan, while a significant step towards combatting vaccine nationalism, cannot succeed in its goals unless it secures “a formal and tangible commitment by powerful nations.” Unfortunately, the world’s largest economy–the US–has decided to sit Covax out.” We need a concerted global effort to ensure that, when the vaccine is ready for mass distribution, we are ready to effectively and equitably distribute it in a way that neither enforces extant power structures nor exacerbates the impact of the pandemic. Unless we have such an effort, our global goal of ending this pandemic cannot be achieved, no matter how effective a vaccine may be.


Hayley Durudogan (J.D. Candidate, Class of 2023) is a Contributor to Travaux. Hayley's interests include international human rights law, reproductive justice, and gender justice. Prior to attending Berkeley Law, Hayley worked in political communications in the field of reproductive rights.



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