Access to COVID Vaccines:
Universal Healthcare’s Time to Shine
by Alp Ünal AYHAN
The COVID-19 pandemic is still in (almost) full effect throughout the world and contagion of the disease is getting out of control in many countries. Reopening efforts gave the virus more opportunities to spread while the “new normal” standards proved ineffective in preventing infections. The curve the world worked so hard to flatten in March and April this year has turned into a spike. The ship for eliminating the disease by quickly identifying and isolating the cases has sailed long past.
We have failed to contain COVID like we did SARS because of both SARS-CoV-2’s more dangerous qualities and governments’ failure to properly enforce required precautions for a sufficient amount of time.
SARS-CoV mutating to a point where it stops being a pathogen to humans seems very unlikely for now. Researchers in Singapore have found a mutation that is linked to milder illness (1) but we do not yet know whether similar mutations will happen or whether these mutations will be widespread.
It's not yet known for how long antibodies of people who recover from COVID provide immunity. The graphs next to this paragraph show some models of the pandemic for the next few years for different immunity lengths. COVID may be "endemic," meaning that it may stay with us going forward and appear seasonally just like the flu. It's expected that if this happens COVID will see "extensive circulation" and "will be painful" according to Juliet Pulliam, director of the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis at Stellenbosch University. Note these graphs don’t take into account a vaccine (2).
Recognizing we need 55-80% of the population immune to stop the pandemic (3), all of these circumstances lead us to one possible solution: vaccines. Vaccinating people against COVID is crucial in stopping the pandemic from reaching its second wave, as it did in the swine flu pandemic of 2009.
There are at least 126 COVID vaccines in various stages of development according to the New York Times' Vaccine Tracker. With the amount of effort and money being put into it, we'll likely see effective COVID vaccines shortly. Aside from the logistical challenges of delivering billions of doses and political and social implications of a potentially mandatory vaccine, there's a cost element to vaccines. A COVID vaccine could cost between $10 to $37 (4). This is a huge barrier to herd immunity for countries in the Global South and people with low incomes in wealthier countries.
Here’s where universal healthcare comes in. Already established with various forms in almost every industrialized nation, universal healthcare ensures -generally through the government- ensures every resident of a country has adequate and high-quality healthcare.
When a COVID vaccine is approved for general use, countries with universal healthcare will provide the vaccine to their citizens, in general, free at the point of use as they will have paid for it through their taxes. This makes sure everybody can get the vaccine regardless of their ability to pay. Universal healthcare provides another cost advantage as governments will be the buyers of this vaccine instead of individuals which will give them more bargaining power, driving the price of each dose down.
Many countries don't have a universal healthcare system, such as the US and India, which will have enormous problems in vaccinating masses of people as they will rely on individuals paying for their vaccines. This will make it difficult for some people to obtain the vaccine as they won't be able to afford it. Not having a universal healthcare system will also bring the price of each vial up as manufacturers will have a heavy hand in determining the cost of the vaccine.
To make protection from COVID-19 a right, not a privilege, countries without universal healthcare must seriously consider adopting it immediately as COVID itself doesn't discriminate but healthcare systems do.