The statistics are blatant and shameful. In an exasperated intervention earlier this week, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, pointed out that of the 4.8 billion doses of Covid vaccine delivered worldwide to date, approximately 75% went to only 10 countries. The level of vaccine donations from rich countries, he added with some understatement, was “really disappointing.” In Africa, where a third wave of the virus has been underway since May, less than 2% of the continent’s population has received a first dose. While high-income countries around the world have administered around 100 doses per 100 citizens, the equivalent figure for low-income countries is 1.5.
As a result, as the United States, Britain and other wealthier countries begin rolling out booster programs in the fall, an unvaccinated pandemic continues unabated elsewhere. WHO’s goal of reaching 10% of the population of each country with a first stroke by the end of September is unlikely to be reached. This grotesque injustice, as Mr. Ghebreyesus and others has repeatedly pointed out, is ultimately in no one’s interest. Allowing much of the planet to function as a Variant Factory, and the more transmissible Delta Variant, to unleash itself, builds up problems for the future. “Vaccinating the world” must therefore be considered a good strategy as well as an ethical obligation. But, in Europe and North America, initial good intentions have so far fallen far behind national priorities.
Governments that can afford it have secured preferential vaccine deals, ordered excessive doses, accumulated them, and restricted exports. Britain has played a leading role in opposing calls for the temporary lifting of intellectual property rights on vaccines. Overall, donations from rich countries have not come far close to the level required. Covax, the vaccine pooling program, has under-delivered, losing its main source of supply after India’s decision to ban AstraZeneca exports. In the field, little time, effort and funding has been spent on ensuring that the infrastructure is in place to effectively conduct immunization programs, when doses are available. The likely outcome is that most people in low-income countries will have to wait until 2023 to get vaccinated. This desperately slow deployment will cost the global economy $ 2.3 billion in lost production, according to a study released today. The burden of these losses will be borne by the unvaccinated poor.
Perhaps more in hope than in expectation, the WHO has called for a two-month moratorium on the administration of boosters in richer countries. The policy of such a movement would be heavy. But a way must be found to dramatically increase the supply of countries struggling to supply the first and second jabs. As the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization have recognized by creating a joint working group on vaccines, the level of inequality is unsustainable. As successive waves of Covid-19 hit richer countries, the management of national crises overshadowed all other considerations. But if the world is to emerge sustainably from the pandemic, a more strategic and equitable approach is desperately needed.