Vaccine equity is at the forefront of conversations surrounding global health efforts as the World Health Organization (WHO) continues to call for unity amid the pandemic.
More than 159 million people in 76 countries have received COVID-19 vaccines, with more people being vaccinated each week. But the WHO reported that there are multiple issues threatening to undermine the effort to achieve global herd immunity against COVID-19 — and unless these obstacles are dealt with, the pandemic could go on indefinitely.
Here are three of the biggest threats facing the global vaccination effort.
1. A Funding Gap
There is currently a $27 billion funding gap for the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which aims to ensure equitable access to tests, treatments, and vaccines around the world. Its vaccines pillar, COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility, more commonly known as COVAX, specifically aims to provide vaccines and other supplies to low- and middle-income countries.
“The longer this gap goes unmet, the harder it becomes to understand why, given this is a tiny fraction of the trillions of dollars that have been mobilized for stimulus packages in G20 countries,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a briefing on Thursday.
Dr. Tedros urged countries to stop competing with COVAX for vaccines. After having vowed to support COVAX, countries would sabotage the program’s mandate by bidding up the price of vaccines.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, competition for personal protective equipment (PPE) on both domestic and international levels caused a global shortage of supplies and unequal distribution. This same zero-sum outlook would undermine the solidarity that’s needed to overcome COVID-19, the WHO said.
Dr. Tedros said that new partnerships have to be formed to scale up vaccine manufacturing. Currently, regressive patent laws have limited the production of vaccines, creating what some critics have called a "vaccine apartheid." Rather than hoarding information and data, wealthy countries could instead allow other countries to access vital information about vaccine production and manufacture them to dramatically increase global production capacity.
2. Vaccine Nationalism
When countries insist on using their leverage and resources to vaccinate their own citizens before other countries receive vaccines: that’s vaccine nationalism.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa recently called on countries to stop hoarding vaccines in this way.
“We are concerned about vaccine nationalism,” Ramaphosa said. “The rich countries of the world went out and acquired large doses of vaccines from the developers and manufacturers of these vaccines. Some countries went beyond and acquired four times what their population needs.”
South Africa recently reported problems with the AstraZeneca vaccine, with doctors finding that it only offered minimal to moderate protection against COVID-19. In the vast majority of African countries, COVID-19 vaccines have not been administered due to a lack of access.
The WHO’s latest call for vaccine equity follows alarming COVID-19 trends. The COVID-19 death toll in Africa recently surpassed 100,000 people, having surged by 40% last month, the WHO reported.
“The increasing deaths from COVID-19 we are seeing are tragic, but are also disturbing warning signs that health workers and health systems in Africa are dangerously overstretched,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, told reporters.
3. New COVID-19 Variants
Health facilities are becoming overwhelmed as new, more contagious variants of COVID-19 spread across Africa, the WHO notes.
The rapid spread of highly contagious strains further highlights the need for fair vaccine distribution. Otherwise, new and more dangerous mutations could emerge that render existing vaccines ineffective.
“We are all not safe if some countries are vaccinating their people and other countries are not vaccinating,” said Ramaphosa, when calling for fair vaccine access at the World Economic Forum.
He continued: “We all must act together in combating coronavirus because it affects all of us equally, and therefore our remedies, our actions to combat it, must also be equal and they must be overarching for all of us and not something that special countries or certain countries have on their own to the exclusion of others.”