The following article uses public data from early September 2020. Sources include Gavi and the WHO’s websites, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Science Magazine, and press from mainstream media and think tanks.
The fight against the pandemic lies on multiple fronts.
Although nearly every Concord Academy student and teacher is anxious to return to campus, the future of a COVID-19 vaccine stays unclear. As months of quarantine drone on it becomes increasingly apparent that a vaccine will not just “poof” into existence. But when one comes along, distribution and cost will remain a worldwide issue.
In June, the World Health Organization (WHO); Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) declared the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility. COVAX asks wealthy (self-financing) countries to pool funds towards hopeful vaccines’ research and development then request pre-orders to cover some percent of their population. COVAX uses this money to mass-order vaccines before and during early distributing, aiming for two billion doses before 2022. With greater purchasing power, COVAX negotiates pricing, and, upon approval, sends doses multilaterally to populations in need: frontline workers, then high-risk populations, holding 5% of total stock for emergencies. To cover costs for 92 countries unequipped for per-dose pricing, Official Development Assistance (ODA) (monitored by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD]) and other sources are building a distinct fund: the COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC). Self-financing countries can pre-order enough single doses through COVAX to cover 50% of their populations, but all requesting countries, AMC and otherwise, will receive enough single doses to cover 20% of their populations before any one country receives more.
Many recall access disparities in previous pandemics. One Concord Academy teacher overseas during the 2009 swine flu pandemic shared, “We heard little talk [of vaccines] at all.” COVAX dubs itself crucial to effective global treatment and future COVID-19 prevention—a crux against “vaccine nationalism.” Practically, it says, one country semi-treated is always at risk of having the virus reimported; economically, any country’s market is too intertwined to rebuild alone.
The COVAX draw is obvious to its poorer or AMC-dependent countries because to them, some offered stock is better than none. COVAX permits private deals with manufacturers, appealing too to wealthier governments, who can now hedge their bets across sources. The UK and Canada have placed enough private orders with manufacturers to cover their populations manifold, and the African Union is in talks to follow.
Nearly 175 countries have expressed interest in joining COVAX, with the United States a notable outlier. But in a time of fluctuating insular states, and since the US moved to withdraw WHO funding in May, agencies say the US’s absence has thrown a weak political hit.
Optimism aside, critics across the political spectrum have pointed at drawbacks to the COVAX plan. Some note how quickly it was thrown together; others ask for more data transparency; others worry that allowing private deals will bottleneck supply. Even as some countries—including the entire European Union—have since offered full support, critics wonder how long this coalition will last. Many are quick to point that so far, the COVID-19 response has been delineated by national borders, and citizens may well glance locally first.
Most researchers agree the US will keep up in the vaccine arms-race even without international help. For CA, an issue lies in that once one state’s vaccination policy is markedly different from another, all travel goes to flux.
Even if the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) authorizes Emergency Use of a vaccine, interstate access may vary, and interstate travel requirements may vary in pursuit. CA’s domestic boarders outside Massachusetts may stay hindered in returning to campus.
Internationally, it is unclear how much aid the US will offer if it develops a successful vaccine, or if the scale of outside vaccination will exceed the US. Current travel hurdles include increased quarantine and personal safety concerns. For CA’s dozens of international students, the US’s absence from COVAX might usher another bureaucratic layer delaying return to campus.
All this is to say, a “normal”, “safe” return to campus may take time. COVAX’s mission motivators seem sound, and a global effort would perhaps reunite CA faster than if countries were to recuperate alone.
People hang onto the idea of a cure-all vaccine, and a potential firestorm lies just beyond a vaccine’s release. The near-global support behind COVAX has been unprecedented, and it is, by most accounts, a miracle. COVAX will be slow; in parts it may fall through. As media scrutiny soon turns towards this collaboration, we shall see how much policy and practice evolve to meet it.