Let’s make sure corruption does not de-rail the vaccine rollout!

At every turn, and all around the world, the covid-19 crisis has created new corruption risks. As we enter a new phase of vaccine roll-out, CSC Director Liz Dávid-Barrett looks at how corrupt and criminal actors are likely to exploit this and how can we head them off.

Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

Looking around the world, many individuals have exploited the covid-19 crisis for corrupt and criminal ends. News emerged early on of dictators abusing emergency powers to clamp down on civil society. Countless contracts for Personal Protective Equipment for healthcare workers have been awarded to political cronies, often meaning that PPE was substandard, late or never arrived. And even where PPE was delivered to healthcare providers, some of it was siphoned off and sold on the black market.

The vaccine rollout is likely to see similar behaviours, which threatens to undermine the vaccine’s ability to curb the spread of the virus and allow economic recovery to start. If vaccines do not reach healthcare workers, that will make it harder for them to provide care. If vaccines get siphoned off and sold on the black market, many vulnerable people will be unable to access them, and the much-needed herd immunity will not be achieved.

But equally, if people start to worry that the vaccines they receive might be substandard or counterfeit, that could undermine trust and feed the ‘anti-vaxxer’ rhetoric. That would also have very detrimental consequences.

So, how can we get a step ahead and prevent these corruption risks occurring?

First, many countries are creating special commissions for vaccines at national level, which invest in research and development of vaccines or make deals with vaccine providers. While it may make sense to centralise power from an efficiency point of view, it is important that such commissions are staffed by high-integrity figures appointed through meritocratic procedures, and that their decisions are transparent and open to scrutiny. Any special vaccine commission should also have a mandate to reduce corruption risks in the supply and distribution of vaccines as one of its key performance indicators.

Second, the vaccine rollout is going to involve a lot of public procurement – a key risk area for corruption. It is not just vaccines that will need to be procured, but also services for bringing them to a country and distributing them. Planning is the key to good procurement. These contracts should be given out through established framework agreements or streamlined open competitions. And bidders should be vetted to check that they are not receiving advantages as a result of links with politicians or public officials. Contracts should be published, to allow the public to scrutinise the prices.

Third, the government should protect vaccine distribution networks.  They should ensure that there are sufficient storage facilities to keep vaccines at appropriate temperatures and prevent degradation. But they should also provide security for the delivery companies. Criminals will be keen to intercept vaccine deliveries and steal supplies so that they can sell them on the black market. Steps must be taken to prevent this.

Fourth, clinics that are vaccinating patients should be required to keep records about which patients have received a vaccination. These should be regularly audited to ensure that medicines are reaching the intended beneficiaries.

Fifth, governments should invest in communicating clearly about who is entitled to a vaccine and how to access it. This will empower individuals to ask questions should they be denied access, and will make it clear that black-market providers are not part of the regulated system. Buying on the black market brings risks that you might be buying a substandard product, and should be discouraged.

The vaccine has the potential to bring an end to the tragedy and disruption caused by covid-19. Let’s make sure that corruption does not snuff out the light at the end of the tunnel!

NB. Liz discussed many of these issues in a conversation with Onyi Ough, Executive Director of Step Up Nigeria, earlier this week. The podcast is available here.

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