GT investigates: Rich countries hoarding vaccines in disregard of poorer regions breathes life into new variants, worsens economic disparity
Published: Jan 17, 2022 08:51 PM
People line up to receive COVID-19 vaccine doses in Nepal on January 17, 2022.  Photo: VCG

People line up to receive COVID-19 vaccine doses in Nepal on January 17, 2022. Photo: VCG

As the world tries to counter Omicron and bumps up booster shot campaigns, vaccine supply has once again come under discussion, as the World Economic Forum (WEF) rang the alarm bells recently of the COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing gap, and the Davos Agenda virtual event is set to discuss the critical challenges facing the world such as inequality in vaccine distribution.

The "immunization gap" between developed and developing countries is still widening, considering the gap in the treatments and facilities against the coronavirus disease available to people in the northern and southern hemispheres.

The Global Times found that the gap in vaccination coverage between high-income and low-income countries has continued to widen over the past six months.

Today, many advanced economies have achieved vaccination levels of above 80 percent. In contrast, less developed regions such as Africa only have about 8 percent of their populations inoculated against the virus. 

In some African countries such as Ethiopia and Nigeria, only 1.4 percent and 2.3 percent respectively are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus disease. The percentage in the UAE and Portugal is even higher at around 90 percent, according the Our World in Data.

Data shows that rich countries have administered far more booster shots in the past four months than the vaccine doses that poorer countries have acquired all year. In fact, in the UK, for instance, the proportion of people who have now received the third dose (27 percent) is higher than the proportion that has received the first dose in Africa as a whole.

Rich countries have hoarded bulk vaccine supplies while donating or shipping them to poorer countries at an increasingly slow pace, which experts said is because more advanced countries have expanded their booster shot campaigns against the new variants. 

What's more, at a time when global cooperation and help are most needed, many countries on the African continent are facing "vaccine nationalism" from the West. 

Now in the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rapid development of vaccines is a scientific achievement for the ages, but the Omicron variant shows why we must prioritize universal global distribution - or risk negative health, economic, and geopolitical outcomes, the Davos Forum said in its agenda.

Hoarding jabs 9 times the population

Globally, 50.03 percent of people have been fully vaccinated, according to the WHO. In total, 9.36 billion doses have been administered globally, and 32.69 million are now administered each day, as of January 16. But those vaccines are unevenly rolled out, with only 9.5 percent of people in low-income countries having received at least one dose, according to latest conclusion by Our World in Data.

About 175.03 doses have been administered per 100 people in high-income countries whereas 82.83 doses were administered per 100 people in low-income countries as of January 14.

Despite many African countries lagging behind in the rollout, the UK, Germany, Singapore, Chile, Italy, and France are all among the top-ranking countries with the most booster shots administered per 100 people. 

As of December 30, 2021, just under half of the countries in Africa had achieved more than 10 percent of the population being fully vaccinated, a target the WHO had set for the end of September 2021.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said recently that more than 90 countries have yet to reach the target of vaccinating 40 percent of their populations, and more than 85 percent of Africa's population has yet to receive a single dose of the coronavirus disease vaccines.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only confirmed the historical phenomenon in which rich countries rush to purchase billions of doses of vaccines whenever the global pandemic is mentioned by the WHO, Adhere Cavince, a Kenyan scholar on international relations, told the Global Times. 

There is no moral justification for a country like Canada to hoard enough jabs to vaccinate its population nine times over while developing countries are struggling to secure vaccines for frontline healthcare workers, said Cavince. 

The gap is further widening as other COVID-19 treatments, drugs, and protective supplies are also far less accessible to people in underdeveloped regions.

A police officer stands next to boxes of expired AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines at the Gosa dump site in Abuja, Nigeria on December 22, 2021. Photo: VCG

A police officer stands next to boxes of expired AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines at the Gosa dump site in Abuja, Nigeria on December 22, 2021. Photo: VCG

The Global Times found that most countries in Africa do not have the capacity to produce vaccines on their own, with a few exceptions including South Africa, Senegal, and Egypt, whose production line was supported by Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinovac. 

Attempts to grant temporary waivers on intellectual property rights with regards to COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics, and medical devices and to facilitate production of the commodities by the poorer countries have fiercely been opposed by rich countries and Big Pharm, said experts.

The vaccine shortage for low-income countries is less than the surplus vaccines within G7 countries and the European Union, according to analyses from both Duke University and Airfinity, a life sciences analytics firm which is tracking vaccine distribution.

The G7 and European Union combined have 769.8 million vaccines to spare this year, even if 75 percent of their population is vaccinated and 20 percent have received boosters, plus 10 percent vaccines which is set aside for waste, according to Duke's analysis quoted in US-based Stat News. 

Except for China, vaccination rates in most developing countries - especially in Africa and some parts of Asia including India - are generally much lower than those in Europe and the US. Low vaccination rates are mainly caused by weak production capacity and economic strength, a Beijing-based immunological professor who prefers to remain anonymous, told the Global Times.

The current shortage of vaccines in Africa is not entirely the result of unequal distribution, but rather of wasted vaccines due to local hesitancy and limited access to basic health care, Zhuang Shilihe, a Guangzhou-based immunologist, told the Global Times.

Global priority above country priority

The stockpiling of vaccines in many developed countries and the aggressive promotion of the third dose and even a fourth dose in these countries will exacerbate the gap in vaccination rates between countries, the Beijing-based expert said.

Some virologists worried that uneven vaccine distribution would increase the chances of new variants emerging.

"Vaccine equity is the best weapon against the Omicron strain and one of the decisive factors in controlling a pandemic," said Zhuang.

Europe, a major frontier of vaccine hoarding, is predicted to come under a heavy spell of the Omicron variant, which Hans Kluge, the WHO's Europe director, said could infect up to 50 percent of the European population in six to eight weeks. "If every part of the world had access to the vaccines, we could be talking about a very different situation," said Cavince.

The WHO's head Tedros made similar judgement, as he said that the longer the vaccine inequity persists, the more opportunity the virus has to spread and mutate in ways no one can prevent or predict.

The head of the WHO says the continuing surge of COVID-19 cases is a result of the unequal distribution of vaccines. And he suggested that the rapid development of not one, but several safe and effective vaccines, is a triumph of science, but "the inequitable distribution of vaccines has been a failure for humanity."

Protesters hold placards and French flags during a demonstration against the health pass and COVID-19 vaccines in Paris, on January 15 2022.  Photo: VCG

Protesters hold placards and French flags during a demonstration against the health pass and COVID-19 vaccines in Paris, on January 15 2022. Photo: VCG

The Beijing-based expert suggested that some new virus strains were first detected in areas with low vaccination rates which then spread to areas with high vaccination rates, such as Europe and the US.

"The most important thing is that we still need to vaccinate... high-risk people everywhere, and that priority needs to be a global priority, not just a country-based priority," said Seth Berkley, chief executive of the Gavi vaccine alliance that helped create the UN-backed COVAX scheme.

Experts also warned that beyond health concerns, the pandemic continues to inflict heavy economic wounds on the already vulnerable countries in the developing world.

"COVID-19 and its economic and societal consequences continue to pose a critical threat to the world. Vaccine inequality and a resultant uneven economic recovery risk compounding social fractures and geopolitical tensions," WEF warned in a report published on January 11.

"The resulting global divergence will create tensions that risk worsening the pandemic's cascading impacts and complicating the coordination needed to tackle common challenges," the report said.