Poor Countries Face Long Wait for Vaccines

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When lockdowns first began, governments discouraged citizens from panic-buying. But when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, it appears that itā€™s every nation for themselves.

Following the good news of the first few COVID-19 vaccines being approved comes less positive news of rich countries buying up a surplus of vaccines, leaving poorer countries in the lurch. Despite promises to put up a united front against COVID-19, the hoarding of vaccines has now become the latest marker of inequality among nations, leaving many disappointed in the lack of global solidarity.

Key COVID-19 vaccines so far

Currently, the three most promising COVID-19 vaccines are the ones from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and the CoronaVac ā€“ the latest vaccine developed by Sinovac, a Biotech company in China.

On 8 December, the United Kingdom became the worldā€™s first nation to begin vaccinating its citizens with a fully vetted and authorised COVID-19 shot. 90-year-old Margaret Keenen was the first Briton to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at University Hospital in Coventry. Following the UK, the United States and Canada, as well as some Gulf countries have already begun giving out the Pfizer vaccine.

The Moderna vaccine has been endorsed by the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration), while CoronaVac is currently undergoing phase 3 clinical trials in places such as Brazil and Indonesia.

Other vaccines in the pipeline include one developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, and a Novovax vaccine, though neither of which have been approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) or licensed by any regulatory agency.

Rich Countries Hoarding Vaccines

Despite global commitments to fight the coronavirus, developed countries, some of which have helped fund the research for the vaccine with taxpayersā€™ money, are under pressure to protect their own populations. Several affluent countries have already stocked up on more vaccines than they need.

While it has been a mere three weeks after the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been approved, rich countries have been buying up vaccines for months now. The Duke Global Health Center shows bilateral deals worth billions by a handful of affluent countries pre-ordering emerging vaccines that could cover far more than their entire populations.

The Peopleā€™s Vaccine Alliance, an international vaccine watchdog that includes human-rights organizations, Amnesty International and Oxfam, stated that rich countries have bought enough COVID-19 vaccines to immunise their populations three times over, reserving a whopping nine out of 12 billion shots the pharmaceutical industry is expected to produce next year.

Nations representing just 14 per cent of the worldā€™s population have snapped up over half of the most promising vaccines available. The Canadian government alone has acquired enough inoculations to vaccinate their citizens five or six times over, even though not all the potential vaccines it pre-ordered may be approved for usage.

COVAX Failing to secure sufficient vaccines for poor countries

The WHO, vaccine alliances GAVI and CEPI, a global coalition to fight epidemics, have created COVAX, whose goals are to enforce the fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines worldwide by providing vaccines to less-developed countries. A total of 172 countries have or are considering participating in the initiative.

However, despite its ambitious goals, COVAX was put together rather quickly, and the inexperience of its team shows in the fact that the organisation is already running out of funding. Apart from only having secured a fraction of the two billion doses it hopes to buy over the next year, it has yet to confirm any actual deals to ship out vaccines.

COVAXā€™s only legally-binding agreement secures up to 200 million doses from the Serum Institute of India, the company that will likely produce a large percentage of the coronavirus shots that will be disseminated to the developing world. Its CEO, Adar Poonawalla has confirmed an order for 100 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and one from Novovax, both of which have yet to be approved.

Though this agreement includes an option to order several times that amount of additional doses, it makes up a mere 10 per cent of COVAXā€™s intended goal. COVAX is in the midst of procuring another 500 million vaccines, but those agreements are not legally binding, and hence, not secured.

Poonawalla has also clarified that his companyā€™s priority would be to make shots for India, which has requested 300 million vaccines. While it is unlikely that India would be able to take all those shots at once, an order of this size would also delay the allocation of vaccines to other developing countries.

Impact on Poor Countries

With the slow rate at which COVAX is acquiring vaccines, recent data provided by the Peopleā€™s Vaccine Alliance has suggested that in 67 nations, only one out of 10 people can expect to receive vaccinations by the end of next year. Poorer countries who signed up for the initiative can no longer depend on it. Some developing countries are pulling out of COVAX and seeking alternative solutions in private deals.

The first to abandon the initiative earlier this month was the tiny pacific island nation Palau, which announced it would rely on donated vaccines from the US instead. Other low and middle-income countries, including Malaysia, Peru, and Bangladesh have stayed in the initiative while making private deals with drug-makers.

Ensuring Proper Distribution

The Peopleā€™s Vaccine Alliance has urged pharmaceutical companies to share their technology and intellectual property with WHO, and called on governments to commit to sending their surplus of vaccines to the developing world, in a bid to close the economic disparity between nations as poorer nations struggle to recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

One of the biggest vaccine buyers, the Canadian government, is already in active discussions with COVAX to donate their unused orders.

In further efforts to gain access to vaccines, South Africa and India have asked WHO to waive some regulations on intellectual property rights, to make it easier for manufacturers in poor countries to produce COVID-19 drugs and vaccines.

The Outlook

A recent statement from GAVI reaffirms their aim to start distributing ā€œsafe and effective vaccines to COVAX (member countries) at scale within the first and second quartersā€ of 2021.

The rest of the world, however, is much less optimistic. The University of Cape Townā€™s Professor Gregory Hussey, who is on the ministerial committee to advise the South African government on access to a COVID-19 vaccine, has expressed disappointment that ā€œdespite the intent to get equity across the globeā€¦ vaccine nationalism rules supreme.ā€

As stated by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier earlier this month, ā€œEven those who conquer the virus within their own borders remain prisoners within these borders.ā€ Without a united front, the global pandemic will never be truly over. And herd immunity is useless if we want to return to a globally connected world where it is safe to travel.


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