A leading scientist who helped develop the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19 has told British lawmakers that vaccine inequity is “morally wrong” as it emerged children as young as 12 are being innoculated in wealthy countries before older and more vulnerable people in poorer nations.
Professor Andrew Pollard, who is director of the Oxford Vaccine Group and led the clinical trials for the AstraZeneca vaccine at Oxford University, made the comments at the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, on May 18.
He added that the purpose of the vaccine was to help end the pandemic and “take the pressure of health systems, not just in the UK but around the world.”
Referencing the COVID-19 crisis that India and other parts of South Asia are facing, he said: "I have worked in Nepal and Bangladesh and colleagues there are facing the most appalling circumstances, they're not working in a situation where there's an NHS [the UK's National Health System] to support them.”
“It feels completely wrong, morally, to be in a situation where we are allowing that to happen, while we are rolling out vaccines to younger and younger populations at very, very low risk,” said Pollard.
Children aged between 12 and 15 have been offered the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 in the US, with 600,000 children in this group already being vaccinated in the past week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Meanwhile, Canada has also approved the Pfizer vaccine for children age 12 and older and it is now being offered to this group.
But vaccinations have not reached the vast majority of populations, across all ages, in some countries.
In the UK, almost 37 million people have had at least one shot, according to data provided on May 17, which equates to approximately 55% of the population, whereas in many African countries, for example, fewer than 1% of people have received a single dose.
Pollard said that as there are still many unvaccinated people in the world who are in those older, higher risk groups the “inequity was plain to see.”
“Children are at near zero risk of severe disease or death [from COVID-19],” he added.
Pollard was joined on the panel by Professor Katherine O’Brien, director of the department of immunisation, vaccines, and biologicals at the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Professor Gavin Yamey from the director of the Centre for Policy Impact at Duke University in the US.
Both experts similarly underlined the importance of vaccine equity, especially given the danger of new COVID-19 variants developing and thriving where vaccines were less widespread.
O’Brien said vaccine inequity “poses risks for every country” and that it was “really clear” what the immediate barriers to vaccine distribution are as the "vast majority of the supply agreements that are in place now are for high-income countries.”
“Firstly, it really is about countries allowing manufacturers to put COVAX first in the line,” she said, referencing the worldwide initiative aimed at ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.
“Secondly, releasing doses that they already have access to. Third is raw material release as well. And finally, fully funding COVAX [the vaccine sharing facility],” O’Brien concluded.
Yamey said he was concerned that wealthy nations would continue to hoard doses for potential booster shots needed in future and also called for support for developing countries to make their own vaccines.
“We need to support low- and middle- income countries to make their own vaccines through intellectual property waivers, tech transfer, and support for manufacturing,” he said. He added that this approach would be more sustainable in the long-term, rather than relying on a “trickle-down” approach and “charity” from wealthier nations.
In February the UK government said it would share its surplus doses with COVAX, which is co-led by WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance to ensure the 92 lowest income countries attain access to the vaccine. However, the government did not give a timeline for when it would share these surplus doses.
Global Citizen has joined other NGOs and leading health experts and scientists in calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to share vaccines now. Take action here by calling on the UK government, as hosts of this years G7 summit, to show leadership and help end the pandemic for all.