INEQUITY

Covid vaccine: Poor nations left behind

In Summary
  • Wealthy countries will be able to vaccinate their entire populations in the next year
  • Poor nations could be waiting in the back of the line until 2024.
Britain has secured two million doses of Moderna vaccine./COURTESY
Britain has secured two million doses of Moderna vaccine./COURTESY

December 8 marked what many now characterise as V-day. Margaret Keenan, 90-year old British woman, was the first to receive what will be billions of doses of Covid-19 vaccines that will be dispensed around the world.

The United Kingdom has ordered 100 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The US ordered 100 million doses with the option to buy another 500 million doses. Canada, the third country to authorise the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will receive 249,000 initial doses of a 76 million doses that Pfizer has committed to deliver. Pfizer is committed to deliver 120 million and 200 million to Japan and the European Union respectively.

As more countries race to approve the use of the first Covid-19 vaccine, manufacturers are working flat out to deliver on their very ambitious production targets. In fact, the delivery is on pre-purchased doses. For example, Pfizer and BioNTech have pre-sold nearly 600 million doses against a production capacity of only 50 million by the end of the year. According to Pfizer officials, the target is a paltry 1.3 billion by the end of 2021, enough to inoculate just 600 million people.

An analysis from researchers at Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Center, found that high- and middle-income countries have already purchased 3.8 billion doses, with options for 5 billion more. Hence, wealthy countries will be able to vaccinate their entire populations in the next year while poor nations like Kenya and the rest of the countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America could be waiting in the back of the line until 2024.

The race to vaccinate against Covid-19 has opened an unconscionable and revolting frontier of inequity. According to Oxfam, wealthy nations, the likes of the UK, USA, Canada, Japan and the European Union, comprise just 13 per cent of the world’s population and yet they have secured more than 51 per cent of the doses of promising Covid-19 vaccine candidates.

Given this context of blistering inequity, Covax is critical to equal access of vaccines by low- and middle-income countries. COVAX aims to distribute two billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines by end of 2021. These doses will cover up to 20 percent of the populations in the funded countries. It is expected that the low- and middle-income countries will raise the resources to purchase vaccine doses to inoculate the rest of their populations.

Cost remains a critical barrier to purchasing and distributing Covid-19 vaccines in Africa. It is estimated that it would cost between $7 and $10 billion to vaccinate 60 per cent of Africa’s population, about 780 million, with the two doses necessary for full protection. Moreover, manufacturing capacity is also a crippling bottleneck.

Urgent global action is needed to increase cooperation between the leading vaccine producers, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, and other producers. Hence, the call by South Africa and India for the World Trade Organization to suspend intellectual property (IP) rights on Covid-19 vaccines and related therapeutics is both timely and mission critical. The world must rally behind India and South Africa.