This week, the world received some hopeful news on the COVID-19 vaccine front. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that its vaccine proved to be more than 90% effective at preventing infection during preliminary trials, a promising sign for everyone who eagerly awaits pandemic life to be a thing of the past.
But the creation of a safe and effective vaccine is only the first step toward ending the pandemic. A speedy and equitable distribution process will be just as necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19.
In a new non-peer reviewed paper, researchers at Northeastern University’s MOBS Lab found that if wealthy countries stockpile COVID-19 vaccines, the world will see nearly twice as many deaths than if vaccines were shared equally across the globe.
“When countries cooperate, the number of deaths is cut in half,” said Matteo Chinazzi, a senior research assistant and one of the leaders of the MOBS Lab.
This drastic difference in lives saved highlights the need for equitable access to treatments and vaccines, especially against a global health threat that knows no borders.
The paper, published in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, looked at the potential number of lives lost in two scenarios in which a vaccine had been available in mid-March when the virus started spreading.
In one scenario, which scientists call “uncooperative allocation,” around 50 high-income countries monopolize the first 2 billion doses of the vaccine. Since these countries have more resources, they have the power to hoard vaccines for their own citizens, intentionally preventing low- and middle-income countries from accessing critical services.
On the other hand, in a “cooperative allocation” scenario, doses of the vaccine are distributed based on a country’s population rather than its income or ability to purchase the vaccine.
The models found that if 3 billion doses of an 80% effective vaccine were distributed equitably back in mid-March, 61% of deaths could have been prevented. This compares to only 33% of deaths prevented if high-income countries decided to stockpile vaccines.
“That’s quite a difference,” said Alessandro Vespignani, director of the Network Science Institute and one of the leaders of the MOBS Lab. “You see immediately that, on the global level, the [cooperative] scenario is far superior, and not even just for ethical reasons.”
Researchers also found that high-income countries stand to gain far less by hoarding the vaccines than low-income do if they receive access to vaccines.
In Western Europe, for instance, the hoarding strategy averts 74% of deaths, while equitable distribution prevents 55% — a 19% difference. In Western Africa, however, a monopolizing scenario averts only 13% of deaths, while equitable distribution averts 93%. A similar difference is seen in Southeastern Asia, where either 5% or 62% of deaths are prevented depending on whether or not vaccines are distributed by country population.
Although distribution options in real life may not be as binary as the two scenarios described in the report, the findings serve as a reminder that countries need to work together to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic. Committing to equitable global access of the future vaccine is the best option for reducing the number of deaths in all countries.
International coalitions like the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator recognize this need and have been working to unite world leaders, global health actors, and private sector organizations to develop life-saving COVID-19 resources that will be equitably distributed around the world.
As of September, 156 countries joined a landmark agreement to combat vaccine nationalism and ensure access for developing countries. Global Citizen has also contributed to the goal of mobilizing $38 billion to end the pandemic equitably through our Global Goal: Unite for Our Future campaign in June, which raised $389 million in support of the ACT-Accelerator.
Disclosure: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen.
Editor's note: This piece has been updated to include a disclosure that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen. We regret the oversight.