Despite the recent pledges from richer nations, poor countries may not get vaccines that will help bring an early end to the COVID-19 pandemic until 2023, experts have said.
According to a report published by Nature, researchers are warning that the poorest countries may have to wait for another two years before they can vaccinate people against COVID-19
Around 11 billion doses are needed to fully vaccinate 70 per cent of the world’s population against COVID-19.
As of July 4, 3.2 billion doses of COVID-19 had been administered. At the current vaccination rate, this will increase to around six billion doses by the end of the year, according to researchers from the International Monetary Fund, based in Washington DC.
However, according to the website of Our World in Data, more than 80 per cent of the doses have gone to people in high-income and upper-middle-income countries. Only 1 per cent of people in low-income countries have been given at least one dose.
Recall that last month, the leaders of the G7 group of wealthy nations pledged extra doses for low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) by the end of 2022, at a summit in Cornwall, United Kingdom.
The biggest pledge was a promise from the US President, Joe Biden that America will donate 500 million doses of the vaccine made by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer of New York City and biotechnology company BioNTech in Mainz, Germany.
This is in addition to 87.5 million previously pledged. The United Kingdom pledged 100 million, and France, Germany and Japan have pledged around 30 million each.
China has shipped around 30 million vaccine doses to at least 59 countries, according to data published on July 2 by researchers from the Duke Global Health Innovation Center in Durham, North Carolina.
As reported by Nature, Andrea Taylor, a health policy researcher and the centre’s assistant director, says these pledges are unlikely to get more vaccines to the world’s poorest people more quickly.
Taylor said her group’s projection in March that the world would only be vaccinated in 2023 is still valid despite all the vaccine pledges by rich nations.
The extra vaccine pledges will be offset by restrictions on exports as the European Union and the United States both prohibit exports of some vaccines and vaccine ingredients.
The EU is insisting companies fulfil their pledges to deliver vaccines to the EU before exporting elsewhere.
In February, India, where around six in ten of the world’s vaccine doses are made, ordered the country’s manufacturers to stop exporting COVID-19 vaccines — including to the COVAX initiative, which was established by groups including the World Health Organisation to distribute vaccines to LMICs. This was a major setback, Taylor says.
COVAX has pledged to vaccinate one-fifth of the population of each LMIC by delivering two billion doses by the end of this year. It has purchased 2.4 billion doses — up from 1.1 billion in March, according to data from the Duke Global Health Innovation Center. But as of 2 July, COVAX had shipped 95 million doses, up from 65 million in May.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases are now surging across Africa. The World Health Organisation’s Africa office, based in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, says the number of COVID-19 infections rose by 39 per cent from 13 to 20 June, and by 25per cent in the week ending 27 June.
At least 20 countries, including Zambia, Uganda, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are experiencing the third wave of infections, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Health facilities are becoming overwhelmed.
Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, based in Cambridge, UK, is one of COVAX’s main sources of vaccine doses.
In June 2020, the company signed a deal with the Serum Institute of India (SII) in Pune, one of the world’s largest vaccine makers, to manufacture one billion doses of the vaccine that the company developed with the University of Oxford, UK, and send them to LMICs. Of these, 400 million doses were to be provided before the end of 2020.
But when infections began to resurge in India’s second wave in March, the government directed the SII to divert all vaccine supplies to meet domestic demand. This has hit COVAX particularly hard.
By the end of March this year, COVAX had received just 28 million doses of the AstraZeneca–Oxford vaccine. It was due to receive another 90 million by the end of April; these are now on hold.
Overall, between February and May, African countries received only 18.2 million of the 66 million doses they had expected through COVAX. Out of nearly 1.3 billion people in Africa, just 2% have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. And a little over 1% — 26 million people — are fully vaccinated, according to the WHO’s Africa office.
An SII spokesperson told Nature that the company expects to resume global exports by the end of 2021. A COVAX spokesperson says that despite the delays, the organisation is confident that it can meet its goal of supplying two billion doses by the end of the year.
The African Union is, meanwhile, exploring other options. With financial help from the World Bank, it has secured 400 million doses of the single-shot vaccine developed by pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson, based in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
“Let me put it bluntly, we are not winning in Africa this battle against the virus so it does not really matter to me whether the vaccines are from COVAX or anywhere. All we need is rapid access to vaccines,” said Africa CDC director John Nkengasong at a briefing at the end of last month.