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|Greater cooperation to ensure equal access to vaccines could be the route to ending the pandemic|
Only 7 per cent of the population in Africa has been fully vaccinated, stated the World Health Organization's director for emergencies, Mike Ryan.
Africa is lagging behind as over half of the world's population has received both doses of COVID-19 vaccines. While the COVAX Facility has said that about one billion doses of vaccines were to be delivered to the continent, the supply for less developed countries is still limited as rich countries made orders to buy vaccines since December 2020.
Worse still, even though pharmaceutical firms have increased production globally, the situation in Africa has not improved much. New variants of coronavirus prompted rich countries to continue to make orders to serve their booster doses.
Looking back at 2021, COVID-19 vaccines were some of the greatest achievements of medical science, preventing the spread of the infectious disease and saving millions of lives around the world.
To date, 23 vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 were approved for emergency use around the world over the past two years, while many others are being developed. In the development history of the medical sector, no kind of vaccine was developed as fast as COVID-19 vaccines.
However, many scientists said that inequity in access is one of the most painful experiences during the pandemic.
It has been two years since COVID-19 took hold and vaccine equity and distribution remain a critical issue. High-income countries now have vaccination rates well above 60 per cent, and their programmes to deliver booster vaccinations have accelerated in light of the Omicron variant. However, looking at the rest of the world, the distribution of vaccines and supplies to some of the poorest countries has been badly delayed.
In Africa, pain mingles with anger. The continent remains unprotected, with just one-quarter of African health workers reporting to be fully vaccinated.
Along with Africa, other regions in the world are even farther lagging behind other countries in vaccinations, which was called out as a “collapse of global cooperation and solidarity” by Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention at a panel on vaccine equity at the World Economic Forum on January 18.
Even in Asia-Pacific, where COVID-19 vaccinations have been accelerated, there remains a large discrepancy in access. As of January 16, Singapore administered around 222.5 doses per 100 people, the highest in the region. In comparison, Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan, and Myanmar have administered only approximately 5.65, 12.44 and 66.39 doses of COVID-19 vaccine per 100 people, respectively, according to Statista 2022.
Campaigners from the People’s Vaccine Alliance of nearly 70 organisations, including the African Alliance, Oxfam, and UNAIDS, have many times called on the removal of monopolies on COVID-19 vaccines, saying that the failure of some rich countries to back the removal of monopolies and drive down these excessive prices has directly contributed to vaccine scarcity in poorer nations.
The fast-spreading of Alpha, Beta, and Gamma variants stoked a dramatic wave of COVID-19 cases in countries. Health experts said that the discovery of the Omicron variant in southern Africa has heightened claims that low vaccination rates can encourage viral mutations, which can then spread to countries where rates are much higher.
“The problem is we are leaving huge swathes of the world behind... But vaccines are absolutely central. There is no way out of the pandemic right now without vaccines as the central strategic pillar,” Ryan said.
Never in history have governments been buying more doses of vaccines for one disease, and more people have been dying of such a disease. At present, researchers are in a race to work on vaccines against the Omicron variant. An initial study from the UK shows that two doses of COVID-19 vaccines are unlikely to protect against infection through Omicron.
Global campaigners have called on an end to pharmaceutical monopolies on vaccines to drive up production, supply and distribution, thus increasing people’s access to COVID-19 vaccines, especially those in low-income countries. However, the path remains tough as pharmaceutical corporations are now expecting to progressively transition the vaccine to modest profitability as new orders are received.
Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager and spokesperson for the People’s Vaccine Alliance said in a statement on AstraZeneca's move away from the non-profit model for COVID-19 vaccines, "Broken promises from pharmaceutical corporations and rich country's governments have been an enduring theme of this pandemic when it comes to vaccine access. This is a further example of why the UK government can no longer defend the pharmaceutical monopolies driving today’s vaccine apartheid. It must immediately join over 100 countries including President Biden in supporting a temporary suspension of intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments so that everybody can be protected."
Campaigners said that now is the time to set up the most ambitious public-private partnerships to boost vaccine equity. People need to bring together governments, healthcare systems, and businesses from every industry to build the world's largest, most comprehensive, and most trustworthy vaccination network.
Antonio Guterres, UN secretary-general, told the all-virtual Davos forum recently that the world must vaccinate everybody to ensure a way out of the pandemic. He said stopping the coronavirus must be at the top of the agenda everywhere, calling for countries to “go into emergency mode in the COVID-19 battle.”
“The last two years have demonstrated a simple but brutal truth – if we leave anyone behind, we leave everyone behind," he said. "If we fail to vaccinate every person, we give rise to new variants that spread across borders and bring daily life and economies to a grinding halt.”
Guterres said pharmaceutical companies should "stand in solidarity with developing countries by sharing licenses, know-how, and technology so we can all find a way out of this pandemic."