‘That’s not right; that’s not fair.’
This is how the world’s vaccination program, the most important global initiative to hold back the ravaging COVID-19 virus and get the entire planet back on its feet, is proceeding thus far: As of the middle of February, just 10 countries accounted for three quarters of the one hundred ninety one million (191 million) COVID-19 vaccinations done globally while 130 other countries with a population of 2.5 billion have yet to start vaccinating their citizens.
This is an unacceptable and alarming development which no less than UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres bewailed as “wildly uneven and unfair”.
“At this moment,” Guterres said, “vaccine equity is the biggest moral test before the global community.” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed this same sentiment sometime back, as his agency ramped up efforts to secure as many doses for distribution to the world’s poorest countries under the COVAX facility, the global health alliance established to share vaccines with the world’s poorest countries.
These calls for better and fairer vaccine distribution come amid reports that the world’s richest countries have bought one billion more doses than their citizens need, leaving those from poorer countries to the tender mercies of fate. This means, one study noted, they will probably not get any vaccine this year.
“This huge vaccine excess is the embodiment of vaccine nationalism, with countries prioritizing their own vaccination needs at the expense of other countries and the global recovery,” said ONE, a group that campaigns against poverty. The excess COVID-19 doses cornered by rich countries alone would be sufficient to vaccinate the entire adult population of Africa, according to an analysis by the same group as it advised that a “massive course correction” is needed if we are to save more lives and get economies to recover in due time.
Indeed, this unprecedented inequality in the availability, access and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines has moved French President Emmanuel Macron to call out the leaders of the G-7 countries (the world’s richest nations) to commit between 3 and 5 percent of their vaccine supply to developing countries.
“It’s an unprecedented acceleration of global inequality which is politically unsustainable because it’s paving the way for a war of influence over vaccines,” Macron said in a recent interview. Well, not only is this inequality politically unsustainable; a Duke University professor said that “the costs of leaving low-income countries unprotected could run to trillions of dollars which can derail efforts to get the global economy back on track to recovery.”
In an article written for the journal NATURE, Dr. Gavin Yamey, professor on the practice of global health and director of the Center for Policy Impact in Global Health at Duke University, advised: “If the rich world continues to hoard vaccines, the pandemic will drag on for perhaps
as long as seven more years.”
Yamey said in a subsequent briefing that “there’s a mantra in global health that an outbreak anywhere could lead to an outbreak everywhere, and that’s why it’s in our interest collectively as an international community to start sharing doses and to make sure we expand the global vaccine supply.” This sharing initiative is what the COVAX facility and to a certain extent, CEPI, the other alliance set up by private donors and trusts led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are supposed to provide.
Unfortunately, while about 190 countries including the Philippines have joined COVAX (this facility provided our first vaccine doses), three dozen high-income countries also contracted directly with the vaccine manufacturers to secure supplies for their own citizens. There should be nothing wrong with that if the global vaccine production has stabilized and ramped up to provide the much needed supplies fairly and equitably.
To date, we are told that these handful of countries representing just 16 percent of the world’s population have snapped up more than half of the available COVID-19 vaccines and, as earlier noted, have used up 75 percent of the available doses last February.
The COVAX facility now hopes to secure around 2 billion doses by the end of 2021, which is only enough to vaccinate about 20 percent of people in low- and middle-
income countries which is unacceptable by any public health measure. Yamey said “What I find disturbing is that I am likely to be offered vaccination ahead of a health worker or high-risk person in a low-income country or middle-income country. And that’s not right, that’s not fair.”
But more than the matter of fairness and equity, Dr. Yamey posits that there are public health and economic risks to rich nations clearing the shelves of vaccines. By forcing the COVAX facility to the end of the line, billions of people in poorer countries will remain unprotected for a year or longer, allowing the virus to continue to spread and increasing the risk of new variants that could be deadlier and more transmissible.
According to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 tracker, more than 110 million people around the world have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and more than 62 million have recovered. Those infection numbers could dramatically increase while recoveries could be deterred further if the vaccination roll out globally remains uneven and even unavailable.
As the ONE study emphasized: “If the virus can thrive in any part of the world, the risk of new variants increases and it is only a matter of time before strains emerge that undermine the vaccines and tools that have been developed to fight COVID-19,” adding that wealthy nations will not be doing their citizens any good if they continue to hoard the vaccines.
Yamey said this could have devastating economic effects for both high- and low-income countries, citing a study that estimates leaving poorer nations unprotected could cost the global economy around $9 trillion, with half of the losses coming in high-income countries.
All is not lost, however. The G7 countries have pledged to provide more funds and share more of their contracted supplies with other countries worldwide. China, Russia and even India have been shipping out hundreds of thousands of their own vaccines to the same target countries.
Additionally, WHO and some of the G7 countries and Norway have called for the structuring of agreements with vaccine manufacturers to include technology transfers and licensing agreements with other manufacturers in other countries. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is now being manufactured by Bharat Biotech of India thus increasing supplies to other countries in Asia and Africa. Yamey emphasized: “We need to stop thinking only of our own nation. We need to start thinking of ourselves as an interconnected global community…as nations, we are like ships on an ocean, and we’re going to rise and fall together.”