Vaccine multilateralism in MENA and open-source data science

As the Arab region continues to largely rely on vaccine hand-outs, it has become imperative for open source platforms to disseminate information relating to the COVID-19 pandemic [Getty Images]
6 min read
02 September, 2021
The New Arab speaks with the architects of The Vaccines in MENA Data Science Initiative, an open-source programme aimed at promoting regional cooperation in vaccine deployment through interactive maps and community platforms.

Must we be inundated by crises for us to act on behalf of our neighbour? Will states always choose blissful isolation over collective solidarity? What then will the decisions made over the past two years mean for our future survival?

Last year, as the pandemic continued to ravage healthcare infrastructure, livelihoods and families, it seemed almost inevitable that Arab media would proceed to hyper-insulate itself, parroting official government lines and proclaim with metronomic certainty the apparent 'progress' each state had made in dealing with the virus.

Yet, as the MENA region – so often plagued by existential threat – once again scrambled into damage limitation, concerned onlookers quickly began to notice that with the COVID-19 pandemic something had changed. Why weren't nations, tied by a common culture, language and sensibility looking out for one another as they once did? Weren't we told that this was a global disease that didn't discriminate? Surely the solution was not to degenerate back into tribalism, but rather to foster and encourage shared collaboration?

Tragically, it seemed that these questions were only screamed by the subaltern: those that had lost something, or someone

"Over in the Arab world, the 'race for the vaccine' had never been about being the first chef in the kitchen, but rather being one of the first to sit at the table"

For a moment, however, on November 9, 2020, the world breathed a sigh of relief. A vaccine had been found. Pfizer, then Astra-Zeneca, then Moderna, and so forth. One after the other, leaders of industrialised nations announced plans for a "new normal", with widescale vaccination plans announced en masse.

Interestingly, calls of celebratory restraint from medical practitioners were quickly, and perhaps expectedly, muffled by the bravado of political triumphalism.

Meanwhile, over in the Arab world, the 'race for the vaccine' had never been about being the first chef in the kitchen, but rather being the first to sit at the table. For the Global South, being relatively ill-equipped with technological, biomedical and pharmaceutical capacity has meant that, necessarily, there is a scramble to hoard the crumbs of innovation.

At the time of the writing, the region largely remains at the whim of the 'benevolence' of foreign governments and global initiatives, in the midst of a second surge of vaccine protectionism.

It is within this current context that The New Arab sat down with Dr Khouloud Ben Alya, Dr Zied Mhirsi and Lara Heskestad to discuss an initiative that, despite all of the above, stands alone in utopic potential: The Vaccines in MENA Data Science Initiative

The initiative centres around the values of solidarity and multilateralism, and is unique in aiming to promote regional cooperation in vaccine deployment and delivery by encouraging vaccine sharing and equity. Crucially, it is the first regional initiative to provide open access to data through real-time updated maps and daily forums. 

Formally beginning the interview with a flurry of urgency and eloquence that perhaps only a frontline doctor can claim, Dr Mhirsi began by stating the motivation behind the project emanated from certain Gulf countries providing little support to regional cooperation, leveraging vaccines instead of sharing valuable logistical data.

A general environment of a lack of information shared by countries had hindered COVAX and other global initiatives from being able to collate and construct healthcare responses, and it had cost lives, he added. 

Therefore it dawned upon the project – a collaboration between the Tunisian Center for Public Health, Global Health Strategies, the Global Institute for Disease Elimination, and the Medical College of Wisconsin – that to rely solely upon government data would not be sufficient.

The first-of-its-kind initiative has thus broadened its reach to not only academic expertise, public health officials, international organisations and social media companies, but the wider general public in its drive to compile data on vaccines in the MENA region. The ethos is clear: if you know or would like to say anything about what is happening in your country, good or bad, your input will be invaluable. 

Utilising this data, the Vaccines in MENA Data Science Initiative has since constructed an interactive map, shown above, that captures key COVID-19 information, including epidemiological statistics, vaccine purchases and delivery details, COVAX contributions and vaccination campaign progress across the region. Updated daily through bots and artificial intelligence, it references international data sets as well as the manual data inputted by the initiative's own community.  

Due to ongoing geo-political turmoil, many states in the Arab region have had to resort to bilateral deals, away from global initiatives such as COVAX [Getty Images]
Due to ongoing geo-political turmoil, many states in the Arab region have resorted to bilateral deals, away from global initiatives such as COVAX [Getty Images]

At this point in the conversation, Dr Khouloud Ben Alya interjected. As the main proponent and architect of the map, she told The New Arab that the map's key feature was being able to track bilateral vaccine deals.

This feature is especially key in the MENA region since many countries have relied on vaccines outside of Western grasp, China's Sinovax and Russia's Sputnik V being particularly popular. Being able to trace, track, and report back on the dissemination of such vaccines is critical in being able to construct a global data-set, in the face of vaccine corruption and geopolitical bartering.

Nonetheless, as one can see in the embedded map, there are plenty of other settings that one can glean from the interactive map, including daily death toll, COVAX shipments vs. allocation, and country profiles.

Still, just focusing upon quantitative information would not be enough to ensure that the initiative's holistic ends are reached.

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The second product that the Vaccines in MENA Data Science Initiative has fostered has been an open-source community platform that shares information about the initiative.

Each week one of the team will share a weekly monitoring report that includes editorial picks of interesting regional articles, invitations to webinars, infographics and a communications repository built to provide information relating to regional vaccine hesitancy. Signing up to the group is available to all, and sharing is more than encouraged.

The repository is the culmination of a global effort of researchers, advocacy collaborators, UNICEF, WHO and Facebook, each of which continues to pledge their aim to disseminate accurate information about the vaccine.

As the vaccine becomes more available, Dr Mhirsi says, it is only natural that we will begin to see an increase in those being hesitant. It is therefore imperative to nip it in the bud before disinformation campaigns are able to fester.

"The need to encourage new members not only to follow and consume, but to contribute and share will be what determines the success of this project, before it is forced to enter its twilight phase"

Yet the group is not without its challenges. In an ideal world, this initiative wouldn't need to be done by the group. Why is it that a community platform is building, maintaining, and managing a project that should rather be the responsibility of states?

Despite credible and worthwhile ambitions, it is evident that without proper institutional or popular backing the initiative will be resigned to its current members, and the community that is being fostered will be eventually lost.

Advocacy for COVID-19 awareness is paramount in the region, particularly given the proportionally high levels of informal workers, refugees and Internally Displaced People.

As the only open-source project sharing information relating to vaccines in MENA, the need to encourage new members not only to follow and consume but to contribute and share will be what determines the success of this project, before it is forced to enter its twilight phase.

Now that the interactive map is live, the Vaccines in MENA Data Science Initiative is continuing its quest to find collaborators passionate about the vaccine, and, after the tumultuous year of 2020, the steadfast work of the initiative is important for our collective wellbeing, now more than ever. 

Benjamin Ashraf is a non-visiting research fellow at the University of Jordan's Department of International Studies and a researcher at the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies. He is also part of The New Arab's Editorial Team. His interests encompass Critical Theory, Post-Colonialism, Aesthetics, and Sound Studies