COVID-19 vaccine distribution has been largely concentrated in higher income countries, despite dire need in conflict-affected areas as more transmissible COVID-19 variants drive up cases and intensify pressure on already strained health systems.
Inequitable vaccine access has seen the US, UK and the EU each pre-purchase enough approved COVID-19 doses to vaccinate their populations more than twice over; excess doses could vaccinate people aged 16 and over of all 20 of the International Rescue Committee IRC’s 2021 Emergency Watchlist countries.
With the release of the final report of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, the IRC is calling for G7 and G20 countries to commit excess vaccine doses and funding to crisis-affected countries.
- Less than 0.1% of people in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Libya, Niger, South Sudan and Cameroon have been vaccinated. Some countries, such as Chad, Burkina Faso, Tanzania – and also northeast Syria – have administered no vaccine doses at all.
- At the same time, due in part to the spread of more deadly and more transmissible variants, COVID-19 cases are surging in crisis-affected states, with more than 20% increases in Thailand (170%), Yemen (24%), Central African Republic (24%), Iraq (22%), Cameroon (21%), Venezuela (21%), Colombia (20%) and Pakistan (20%) in the last month. COVID-19 deaths also rose by 25% or more in Thailand (316%), Venezuela (32%), Central African Republic (26%), Kenya (25%), Cameroon (25%) and Ethiopia (25%).
- Countries in Latin America are also seeing high death rates amid insufficient access to vaccines with Mexico recording a case fatality rate of more than 9%, compared to a global case fatality rate of 2.1%.
- In Bangladesh, owing to COVAX vaccine shortages, original plans to vaccinate the Rohingya population last month were suspended.
While recent donations of doses to COVAX will further support efforts to mitigate the impact of the pandemic in low- and middle-income countries, more needs to be done. Many countries lacking sufficient access to COVID-19 vaccines are seeing major surges in cases, which continues to threaten global health security. This comes at a time when global supply chains are continuing to face disruptions that are further slowing vaccine production and distribution. The IRC calls on governments in high-income countries to take the critical steps needed to drive more equitable access, including redoubling support to COVAX, funding distribution, and supporting efforts to increase manufacturing.
Mesfin Teklu Tessema, Senior Director of Health at the IRC, says: “As deadlier variants spread across crisis-affected countries, almost 90% of all vaccine doses have been administered in high-income countries. High-income countries must do more. This not only means urgently sharing excess COVID-19 vaccine doses with the COVAX facility, but supporting vaccine distribution and manufacturing efforts in lower-income countries. This includes sharing COVID-19 related technology and know-how, waiving intellectual property rights to the vaccines, and funding distribution efforts. Ending restrictions on the export of COVID-19 vaccines and vital ingredients is also essential – as these have already hindered an already under-resourced and overstretched global supply chain at a time when cases continue to surge, and more contagious variants spread. As we near the G7 annual meetings and the G20 later this year, the IRC calls on these wealthy countries to step up to the plate.”
Meanwhile, Pope Francis in a message to global Vax concert, has given his backing to the campaign calling for the suspension of coronavirus vaccine patents to boost supplies to poorer countries. The Pope backed “universal access to the vaccine and the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights”. And he added his condemnation of the “virus of individualism” that “makes us indifferent to the suffering of others”.
“A variant of this virus is closed nationalism, which prevents, for example, an internationalism of vaccine and putting the laws of the market or intellectual property above the laws of love and the health of others.”
He added that God instils in our hearts a new and generous spirit that enables us to abandon individualism in order to promote the common good.
It is a “spirit of justice that mobilizes us to ensure universal access to vaccines and the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights; a spirit of communion that allows us to generate a different, more inclusive, just, sustainable economic model,” the Pope said.
Photo: UNICEF/Sibylle Desjardins)