Vaccine queue-jumping fears abound as India set to sell doses privately

Jennifer Rigby
·5-min read
Healthcare workers in Barcelona waiting for their Covid-19 vaccination - Josep Largo/AFP
Healthcare workers in Barcelona waiting for their Covid-19 vaccination - Josep Largo/AFP

While healthcare workers and vulnerable patients anxiously wait in line for the Covid-19 vaccine, there are increasing fears that the world’s rich and powerful could be trying to push their way to the front.  

Reports of celebrities, politicians and presidential security guards getting the vaccine ahead of schedule in countries from Poland to the Philippines have begun to leak out, amid warnings queue-jumping is “inevitable” while vaccine supplies remain so tight. 

Dr Mark Eccleston-Turner, an expert in Global Health Law from Keele University, said: “I think it is inevitable that people will try to [jump the queue]. I don’t think it needs to be inevitable that they are successful.” 

In some cases, they may not even have to push - just reach into their considerably deeper pockets. In India, vaccines could be available for sale on the private market by March or April, the FT has reported, after the head of the Serum Institute of India - a partner of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine team - said it expects to sell 20-30m doses to private facilities for $8 per shot after meeting its obligations to the Indian government.

In countries around the world without universal healthcare, there is nothing new in rich or powerful people getting access to better treatment. In the United States, for example, the monoclonal antibody treatment credited with helping President Donald Trump recover from Covid-19 - unlicensed when he received it - is very expensive, although some doses will now be provided for free for patients after it was approved for use in the country. 

During the pandemic, most governments have pledged to focus on vaccinating the most vulnerable first, as well as frontline workers. This will bring down the risk of death from Covid-19 as quickly as possible, ending the so-called “acute” phase of the crisis.  

What that means in practice differs slightly in different countries. In the UK, that has meant a focus on the over-80s, care home residents and healthcare workers, and a pledge to keep any government-procured jabs out of private clinics. 

While supplies are so tight, most vaccine manufacturers say they are focusing on dealing with governments. 

While the Serum Institute of India is taking a different path, an AstraZeneca spokesman told the Telegraph that any deals it has done have also been direct with governments and NGOs.  

“The entirety of the vaccines that we are producing will be going directly to them,” he added.  

But within governments there remain opportunities for groups to push themselves to the front of the queue - particularly in systems where, like the United States, the details have been left to local administrators to hammer out.  

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says healthcare workers and care home residents should get the vaccine first, followed by “essential” workers - but that is causing confusion, according to Professor Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. 

“Most are not jumping the line deliberately,” he told the Telegraph. “We’ve put in place a confusing, very fussy, overly complicated criteria. No-one understands what ‘essential’ means, or the underlying risk factors.” 

The system also remains open to lobbying: for example, in December, Uber sent letters to every US governor asking that their drivers were put in the “essential” class and therefore bumped up the list, according to reports in the US. 

That’s hardly surprising, said Dr Clare Wenham, assistant professor in Global Health Policy at the London School of Economics. 

“It’s not necessarily nefarious. If I was a company, I’d be trying to buy my company a vaccine,” she said. “Where there’s a resource, there’s a market for it, especially when that resource is finite - that’s economics 101.”  

Other groups, including the International Olympic Committee and - in Canada - the National Hockey League have caused controversy by calling for athletes to be prioritised, although they stressed that this should not impact provision for the elderly or vulnerable.  

In some countries, the lines are more blurred. For example, in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has pledged to protect his bodyguards from an investigation into how they managed to get the vaccine before it was either approved or officially even available. 

“They risked their lives to protect our president,” his spokesman told a media briefing. 

The daughter of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, got the Sputnik jab the day it was registered by the authorities, before all the trial data was in, back in August. 

In some locations, celebrities and politicians have got the jab early in a bid to convince the public that it is safe. That includes 31-year old Congress member, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who filmed herself getting the vaccination in December. 

A hospital in Poland which vaccinated a handful of actors, politicians and other celebrities this week also used this argument, although its director has since been sacked and the scheme condemned by the country’s prime minister as a scandal amid accusations of queue-jumping.  

For many global health experts, the emerging stories are depressingly familiar. 

“It’s the same as the question about the inequality of vaccine distribution globally. It’s a microcosm of the bigger, richer countries getting it first,” said Dr Wenham.

“And ultimately it means the pandemic will be prolonged - and to me it just stinks. This pandemic has shown us that at the time of greatest need, people are selfish.” 

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