The Moral Responsibility and Urgent Necessity to Provide COVID-19 Vaccines to the Developing World


Katia Anastas

A sunset on the Greek island of Sifnos, where COVID-19 cases are now increasing throughout Greece as we head into the winter months of 2020-2021; COVID-19 cases are increasing in much of the world.

Living on less than $2.50 a day, plagued by a host of poverty-related diseases, and suffering from structural inequalities, the developing world population is now at the mercy of a silent killer, COVID-19.

172 countries are currently racing to put together the missing puzzle pieces to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. Unfortunately, equal access for all is not ensured.

High income countries are the engine of innovation, leaving poor countries to trail behind. Currently, the World Health Organization estimates that 2 billion people in the developing world lack access to basic medicines due to patents, a lack of healthcare infrastructure, and broken supply chains. This begs the question: would a coronavirus vaccine even reach the world’s poor in a timely manner?

 The main contenders in the race for a vaccine are China, Russia, and a plethora of research-based pharmaceutical companies mainly from the United States and the United Kingdom. 

Russia is the first actor attempting to provide a vaccine to the developing world. Of concern however, is the fact that Russia has not observed the rules of medical testing; state led scientists have already approved two vaccines before conducting any advanced clinical trials. With no testing and little oversight, vast portions of the population in Russia and the developing world are guinea pigs in a real world analysis of the effectiveness of this vaccine.

Also playing it risky, China and the United Arab Emirates are allowing their citizens and people in developing countries to be injected with experimental vaccine candidates that have not undergone any clinical trials.

China is aiding the developing world through the COVAX initiative, an alliance of countries that aim to develop and distribute COVID-19 vaccines to the world’s poor. 167 countries have signed on to this initiative, but many high income nations have instead signed contracts with private companies for vaccine development. Private companies are unlikely to distribute vaccines to the developing world for free, when instead they can make a profit in high income countries. The United States is noticeably missing from this initiative, having paid upwards of 6 billion dollars to several firms for vaccines. Unfortunately, an analysis by a charity, Oxfam, finds that even if all five of the most advanced vaccine candidates succeed, there will still not be enough for the majority of the world’s population until 2022.

One factor this study does not take into account is trust, something that successful vaccine distribution depends on — consumers must place confidence in companies and countries when taking a vaccine. 

In July 2020, demonstrators in South Africa burned facemasks, questioning whether vaccine testing was manipulating the country’s poor. There is a traumatic history that fuels this distrust. During apartheid, a period of systemic racial segregation, there were extensive efforts both by the government and doctors to secretly administer contraceptives to Black South Africans so that they would be infertile. As a result, there remains a culture of hostility between patients and medical professions to this day. 

Consequently, it is uncertain if those in developing countries will even take a vaccine should it reach them. However, trust is one of the smaller concerns when the developing world has historically always been the last in line to even have the opportunity to received a vaccine. When HIV and H5NI influenza vaccines came onto the market, Africa was stuck at the end of the line.

There are a few reasons why a greater effort must be made to ensure access in the developing world during COVID-19. The first is for ethical purposes. The developing world lacks the ability to make a vaccine of its own, which means the security of these nations is dependent on the altruism of high income nations. The second is to stabilize the global economy. “Widespread vaccine distribution is the key to reviving the economies of the developing countries and in turn the global economy. Especially in this day and age, every country is connected through trade, and if one falls, the rest go down like dominoes,” said Sela Emery ’23.

Access to vaccines in the developing world could save millions of lives. It is not only a moral responsibility but an urgent necessity to ensure that such access is achieved.

“Widespread vaccine distribution is the key to reviving the economies of the developing countries and in turn the global economy. Especially in this day and age, every country is connected through trade, and if one falls, the rest go down like dominoes,” said Sela Emery ’23.