The COVID-19 pandemic has entered a new phase. Vaccines have been developed and authorised for ‘emergency use’. Some were developed using traditional methods but were developed quickly because the companies had a head start on research on coronaviruses. Other vaccines have used new mRNA techniques.
The roll-out of the vaccines has been attended by several controversies. How effective are they against the new variants of the virus? How effective are they for older persons where that group may have been under-represented in the trials?
These are basically scientific questions which will be answered in due course. However, there are two major issues which are societal rather than scientific and whose resolution could influence the ultimate success of the global vaccination drive. These are ‘vaccine hesitancy’ and ‘vaccine diplomacy’.
There are a few people who are opposed to vaccinations of any kind, including measles, polio, smallpox, and so on, which are now routinely given to children, as well as seasonal influenza vaccines.
‘Vaccine hesitancy’ refers to the unwillingness of certain social groups to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Even though COVID-19 has killed disproportionately persons of African and Asian descent, it is precisely among these groups that vaccine hesitancy seems to be greatest. Their concerns and reservations are being rapidly spread within those communities via social media.
The reasons for vaccine hesitancy are complex and socio-historical, but at base reflect a lack of trust in the system, including the health care system. The problem though is that in the case of the COVID-19 disease, if too many persons refuse to take the vaccine, the health of everyone in the society could be compromised.
‘Vaccine diplomacy’ speaks to the unequal distribution of vaccines globally. Even before vaccines were approved in the developed countries, their governments bought or paid down on millions of doses from different manufacturers.
This allowed the companies to begin mass production of the vaccines even before formal approval, which could occur only after the Phase 3 trials were complete.
Developing countries, which did not have the money to pre-order vaccines and in any event were waiting on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) approval of the vaccines, have found themselves potentially disadvantaged in the global distribution of vaccines, despite the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) initiative sponsored by the WHO.
The implications of both ‘vaccine hesitancy’ and ‘vaccine diplomacy’ are significant. The SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19 is highly transmissible. In fact, some of the new variants are even more contagious than the original virus which entered human circulation in late 2019.
If the pandemic is to be halted, the entire world must achieve ‘herd immunity’, that is, a sufficiently high proportion of the population must be (practically) immune. If not, the spread will continue, and new variants may defeat the vaccines which have been developed.
While it is true that the new techniques allow the vaccines to be tweaked to handle new variants, the cost of doing so on an ongoing basis would be extremely high. It is far better to eliminate the coronavirus altogether. As the WHO has stated: “No one is safe until everyone is safe”.
It is therefore critical to overcome vaccine hesitancy through strong communication programmes targeted at the hesitant groups. It is equally critical that the roll-out of vaccines in the developing countries be accelerated and not lag too far behind the roll-outs in the developed world.
The Church must lend its voice and its efforts to address both these issues. It must help to confront distrust at parish and community levels, and at the international level, help persuade political leaders in the developed world to assist the developing countries.
After all, these are both matters of social justice in which the Church is expected to lead.