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The ethics of ‘vaccine passports’ and a moral case for global vaccine equity

As vaccines continue to roll out globally, wealthier nations have been inoculating their populations at much higher rate than the global South, sparking the debate over “vaccine passports.” Northwestern University professor Steven Thrasher, instead, argues in favor of focusing on greater vaccine equity. He joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    COVID-19 vaccinations are expanding…To the point where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it's safe for vaccinated people to travel.

    But so-called "vaccine passports," for those who have received them are sparking debate over vaccine equity. Many developing countries are still struggling to obtain the vaccine.

    I spoke with Northwestern University professor Steven Thrasher who recently penned an opinion piece for Scientific American: "Global vaccine equity is much more than vaccine passports".

    Steven, in your recent column for Scientific American, you point out the idea of vaccine passports inside the United States takes on a different dimension when we think about having vaccine passports to legitimize travel overseas. Why?

  • Steven Thrasher:

    Because it's skipping over the issue of vaccine equity.

    And that's the miracle of modern science and wonderful that about half a billion doses of vaccines have already been administered in the world. But they've primarily gone to the wealthiest countries in the world. And that means that there are about seven billion people or more who receive no vaccine. And one of the reasons why this has happened is because the wealthy countries are keeping the vaccines inside of their borders. They're protecting intellectual patents. They've blocked efforts at the World Trade Organization to waive the patents to produce the vaccines as quickly as possible around the globe.

    And so I think that we really need to have a much more global idea of how we're going to be treating this epidemic. These efforts need to be happening across borders and simultaneously. The longer that people remain unvaccinated around the world, the more mutations are going to develop that could or could not work with the vaccines that we already have.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Even if you were able to vaccinate every American, that would only work if no Americans traveled overseas or nobody ever visited the United States.

  • Steven Thrasher:

    Yeah, that's correct. And of course, we live in a very interconnected world. People are coming and going. Even with the borders largely closed, the idea of a vaccine passport does bring up the idea of something I'm complicit in, that those of us from certain countries, we already have a lot of passport privilege and that we can travel very freely between lots of countries.

    And so one of the ways I've been thinking about it as this issue came up, is there are ways that states giving or not giving vaccines to vulnerable populations will affect their ability potentially to flee if they need to under war or famine, which is something that already happens under passports, which some of us can travel for leisure or fun, while people who are fleeing life threatening circumstances cannot cross the borders. And this could make it worse.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How do we take steps toward gaining more kind of global equity of vaccine distribution?

  • Steven Thrasher:

    Well, nations break contracts all the time. So the idea that these vaccines, that these patents couldn't be broken, other countries have done that with other diseases, notably Brazil, with HIV medications that had tremendous effect for saving people's lives. So that's one option.

    And it's also interesting seeing what other countries are doing. Cuba is in a really interesting place right now where they are in trials for a number of different vaccinations. And if they prove to be effective, they very well may give those patents to, or those recipes, to other countries to produce themselves. It is really important that not only the U.S. or others could be exporting drugs, but that we allow countries to be able to make them themselves. So I'm hoping that the production speed will increase globally among different countries and not only be an issue of how much the U.S. is going to choose to give to other countries or not.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It seems that when we really want to, we can, say in the case of polio or malaria, we can beat things back pretty well. So what should we be doing based on all the types of diseases and viruses that we fought as humanity together, what should we be doing to try to get over this crisis?

  • Steven Thrasher:

    The history of smallpox is really interesting, which is one of the very, very few viruses that have been eradicated from the face of the earth. And it was eradicated because of extreme cooperation between the United States and the former USSR, these ideologically opposed empires that worked together for a common goal. And I think that's a real model of what we need to be doing with the coronavirus.

    We need to have international cooperation and support to address how to best deal with this pandemic, particularly because it's one that transmits so casually. You don't need a smallpox passport to go between countries because you don't need a vaccine anymore, because it's gone.

    One thing I think we can really learn about what the U.S. has done quite well this year is that it might have been inconceivable two years ago to think that there's a health condition that everyone is dealing with at the same time. And everyone will have access to what will help it for free, we'll put in the infrastructure to do it. The U.S. has been fantastic at getting needles into arms in the past few months. It's something that's very much within our grasp to do to help other countries to be able to do the same thing. And if we did that, then people could move between borders without the fear and anxiety that we have right now about viruses.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Steven Thrasher of Northwestern University and a columnist for Scientific American, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Steven Thrasher:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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