Morality and Law
Vaccines, the Indian Strain and Human Rights

The issue of public trust in the government and vaccine developers is becoming the key to successfully overcoming the pandemic. The use of administrative levers to increase the rate of vaccination raises the issue of human and civil rights observance with regard to the agenda, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

The ‘Indian’ strain of coronavirus known as ‘Delta’ has spread to many countries, including Russia, leading to a sharp increase of the third wave of the pandemic. The peculiarity of this new wave is that it is occuring for the first time since the creation of vaccines against coronavirus. Therefore, in those countries that were able to effectively carry out large-scale vaccination of the population (for example, in the UK, where more than 50% of the population is vaccinated), the third wave, despite the high daily increase in new cases, is accompanied by extremely low mortality. In Russia, due to the slow rate of vaccination, the situation is different, and mortality is by no means decreasing.

At the same time, almost all existing vaccines, as their manufacturers admit, provide lower protection against the new Indian strain, since they were created before it appeared. For example, Russia’s Sputnik-V vaccine, according to its developer, protects against infection with the Indian strain 2.6 times less effectively. This puts on the agenda both the issue of modifying vaccines and the task of revaccination of the already-vaccinated population. Obviously, initial assurances from vaccine developers that they provide protection for one to two years have turned out to be too optimistic in the face of ongoing mutations of the coronavirus.

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In general, if we trace the results of vaccination in individual countries, then we can distinguish several indicative trends. One of them is associated with small island states.

And here typical examples are the Seychelles and the Maldives. Both countries are among the global leaders in terms of the percentage of vaccinated people: in the Seychelles 70%, and in the Maldives 50% of the population. At the same time, over the past two to three months, these countries have shown a sharp increase in the number of infections. In the case of the Seychelles, where the whole of 2020 was practically “clean” in terms of coronavirus, and only a few cases of the disease were recorded, since the beginning of 2021 and almost simultaneously with vaccination, a sharp increase began (up to a thousand people per day at the peak of the incidence for a state with a population of 97 thousand people is extremely high). The culprit was originaly apparently thought to be the South African strain, and later supplemented by the Indian one. In the Maldives, where 2020 brought a medium-high level of infection, and there were already a sufficient number of patients, the situation somewhat leveled off by winter, but since spring, vaccination and the Indian strain have entered into competition with each other. And with a high percentage of vaccinated people, at the peak the number of infected people reached 1,500-2,000 people per day (with a population of 500,000 people). It is clear that tourists became the main source of infection in both countries (including those from Russia), and then the virus spread through the local population.

As a result, both the Seychelles and the Maldives demonstrated an amazing paradox: these countries are now simultaneously among the global leaders in terms of both the percentage of vaccinated and the percentage of infected. According to “Our world in data” as of July 1, the Seychelles ranks fifth in the world among all countries and territories in terms of the percentage of vaccine doses administered to the population, and the Maldives ranks 31st. At the same time, according to Worldometer data as of July 1, in terms of the percentage of covid infections, the Seychelles ranked third in the world among all countries and territories (15.7% of the population), and the Maldives ranked seventh (13.4%). Both of these cases practically involve laboratory purity (small population, only external introduction of the virus) and show that the Indian strain so far defeats the vaccine. Mortality, however, in both of these countries is significantly lower than the world average. According to Wikipedia, as of July 1, the case fatality rate, the percentage of deaths among those infected, is 0.4% in the Seychelles and 0.3% in the Maldives, whereas the world average is 2.1%. This may be evidence that vaccines, while not effectively protecting against the Indian strain, nevertheless reduce mortality.

Of the countries with a large or medium-sized population with a high percentage of vaccinated persons which have been attacked by the Delta strain, Britain is most worthy of consideration. There, the situation confirms these conclusions: a sharp increase in the number of infections, despite vaccination, but low mortality. As for the other vaccination leaders from this category of countries (Israel, Hungary, the USA, Canada), the Indian strain has not yet penetrated on a massive scare there, and therefore the number of infections has sharply decreased after vaccination and remains at this level.

In Russia, the situation is different now. The UK and Russia are now the only European countries to have shown a sharp increase due to the Indian strain (20 thousand per day in both countries), but in the UK, due to successful vaccination (50% of the population), an extremely low number of deaths: 10-20 people per day. Now Russia, however, according to the official statistics of the headquarters, has reached its highest-ever rate of daily mortality since the pandemic began.

It is clear that the intensification of vaccination and the launch of revaccination (with all the visible drawbacks of the existing vaccines against the Indian strain) is the way, at least, to reduce mortality from the epidemic. And here the question arises as to how much states and societies are ready for this in a situation when the first stage of the vaccination campaign in a number of countries, including Russia, has caused significant distrust among certain members of society.

In this regard, the issue of public trust in the government and vaccine developers is becoming the key to successfully overcoming the pandemic. The use of administrative levers to increase the rate of vaccination raises the issue of human and civil rights observance with regard to the agenda. First of all, this applies to guaranteeing the labour rights of citizens (when the unvaccinated are removed from work), but also to the right to rest and other rights. The search for the optimal combination of human rights and the rights of society as a whole, finding a balance between the majority and the minority within society (and in the case of Russia, not the majority, but the minority ready for vaccination) has in this case not only epidemic, but also quite tangible socio-political consequences.

In this regard, it is interesting to refer to the recent court decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) regarding the case of the compulsory vaccination of children in the Czech Republic. This case is old, it was gathering dust for a long time and was waiting for its turn to be considered by the ECHR, but now, given the era of the pandemic, it has become the focus of public attention and was finally considered. As you know, the court recognised the legality of compulsory vaccination with an emphasis on the fact that the rights of an individual should not violate the rights of society as a whole (including the right to public health). In our subjective opinion, the reasoning and rhetoric of this decision is simply surprisingly contrary to the entire previous judicial tradition of the ECHR. Let us agree that traditionally the ECHR (as well as the Council of Europe as a whole) has always put the observance of the rights of an individual person above the rights of society as a whole, and the rights of a minority above the rights of the majority. In fact, this was the understanding, in our opinion, of the main task of the Council of Europe: to support the importance of individual freedom in the face of general pressure and “authoritarianism”, if you like, from society and the state. It was in this that the commitment to democracy was expressed.

And then suddenly, the pandemic, for some reason changed everything, and the ECHR makes a decision that runs counter to its own freedom-loving and democratic principles, developed over decades.

Objectively, such a change in approach is understandable: fear of the pandemic could well have taken possession of the judges. But when you read the decision on the Czech vaccination case, you involuntarily catch yourself thinking that its ideology, values and rhetoric are not at all what we expected from the ECHR, but rather of a “rubber stamp” tribunal in an authoritarian state. The term “medical totalitarianism”, which has already appeared in global public opinion in connection with the response to the pandemic, has received, thanks to this verdict, a new confirmation.

As a result, there are two answers to the global dilemma of whether to use old vaccines that are not effective enough against the Indian strain (but there are no others). States are actively saying yes and are beginning to use administrative leverage to accelerate vaccinations despite human rights violations. Significant segments of society are more likely to answer “no”, which may well lead to protests and an increase in civil discontent in a number of countries.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.