Corruption and the COVID-19 Vaccine: The Looming Problem of Distribution

From the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, activists and analysts have called attention to the significant corruption risks associated with the response to both the public health crisis itself and the economic disruption it has caused. Anticorruption advocates have highlighted, for example, the corruption risks associated with the distribution of relief funds and personal protective equipment, and have emphasized the need for reforms like enhancing transparency, requiring audits, and ensuring protections for whistleblowers. (For samples of the discussion of the need for anticorruption measures in coronavirus response, see here, here, here, and here.) Yet there has been surprisingly little sustained discussion or planning concerning a specific issue which, while still prospective, is of pressing global importance: the inevitable corruption risks that will be associated with the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, if and when such a vaccine becomes available.

This is not to say that there has been no exploration of the subject. Commentators have discussed the difficulties of ensuring that a vaccine is distributed equitably, as opposed to simply being given to the most affluent, and have called attention to the problems of black markets and price gouging that are likely to emerge once vaccines are available. There has also been some general, abstract discussion of the fact that the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, once one exists, has significant potential for both grand and petty corruption. Absent from the discussion, though, has been the development of concrete plans for incorporating anticorruption measures in vaccine distribution—plans that take into account the inherent logistical challenges. The World Health Organization (WHO), to its credit, has released a seventeen-page plan for fair allocation of a COVID vaccine, which discusses detailed measures to ensure that vaccines are distributed fairly. However, the WHO plan devotes little more than a page to promises of “strong accountability mechanisms” in the governing bodies to “ensure protection against undue influence.” The WHO does note that the primary role of its own Independent Allocation Validation Group is to ensure that proposals from the vaccine Allocation Taskforce remain “transparent and free from conflicts of interest,” but while this sort of internal monitoring is laudable, the WHO plan conspicuously lacks any further guidance or recommendations on appropriate anticorruption measures once the vaccines are handed over to their allocated countries.

Although the timeline for a vaccine remains uncertain—and there’s no guarantee that a vaccine will be available any time soon—it would make sense for both international organizations and national governments to identify the most likely corruption risks associated with vaccine distribution and to begin developing safeguards to mitigate those risks. While there are many possible corruption risks associated with vaccine distribution, the two most significant are diversion of vaccines and extortion. Let’s examine each in turn:

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