The federal government has overpromised and underdelivered on the COVID-19 vaccine. It deserves to be criticised for that.
But delaying immunisation means that Australia may — albeit inadvertently — be doing the right thing.
Vaccine nationalism was always to be expected – and it’s a shame that the rich world has snapped up most of the current supply. The political economy of COVID-19 is merely following a long-standing trend of colonial extraction.
But calls to do “whatever it takes” to get ahead of others in acquiring and distributing the vaccines are unprincipled and short-sighted.
Medical care is a highly scarce resource. In most cases (especially in emergencies) it is allocated based on need. The person suffering a heart attack will be treated ahead of someone with a broken toe — even if the latter arrived first and complains loudly.
COVID-19 is a global emergency. Producing vaccines takes time and supply will be dwarfed by need in the short-run.
It’s a simple zero-sum game: every administered dose means someone misses out elsewhere. Immunising Australians – remember that we have 39 active cases and five deaths in the past three months – would unquestionably mean avoidable deaths in places where the virus is killing thousands each day.
So much for being a good global citizen.
Also, immunisation is not the silver bullet people seem to think it is. Scientists are increasingly convinced that COVID-19 will become endemic. This means that public health measures will be a feature of daily life for some time.
For those who remain unconvinced, waiting our turn is also in Australia’s self-interest in two ways.
First, as we’ve already witnessed with this one, viruses mutate. Some mutations can result in strains that are more contagious, more lethal or even one more resistant to vaccines. Uncontrolled spread anywhere in the world can yield variants that pose a threat everywhere.
Second, the speed with which the vaccines are developed and approved for use is unprecedented and certainly not normal. Some questions that would be normally be investigated by developers and regulators before rollout remain unanswered. Is a vaccine more effective in some people than others? Is there an optimal interval between doses?
Data to help answer these questions are being generated in real time. Every administered dose increases the knowledge at our disposal — an enormous advantage for countries that have the luxury of being able to delay their rollout by a month or two.
Vaccinating against COVID-19 is not an Olympic sport. We’re dealing with a deadly pandemic that needs to be stopped as soon as possible. This means allocating vaccines based on need and Australia’s need is thankfully low.
Waiting our turn is in our best interest — morally, medically, and economically.
This is an edited version of a piece published in Crikey on 4 February 2021.