By Will Brown
In October 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published their strategy to vaccinate 70% of the world’s population by mid-2022. Current progress on this strategy is a testament to the hard work of healthcare professionals around the world. We reached 35% by the end of September and 50% by the end of 2021, surpassing the WHO’s projections. It appears the strategy is working: so why is there concern around that last 20%?
Global vaccination statistics hide the divide that has formed. The NHS has been providing booster vaccinations. Israel is drawing up plans for a fourth dose. Meanwhile, lower income countries are struggling to provide the first dose — where only 8.5% have received it. It is becoming apparent that the challenge of meeting the WHO’s target lies in vaccinating lower-income countries. The WHO’s goal is far from impossible, but it requires something unfortunately uncommon in international politics: selflessness.
Selflessness is not something we have been particularly good at so far. Wealthier governments rushed to vaccinate their own population, purchasing millions of doses before they were even on offer for lower income nations in what has been dubbed ‘Vaccine Nationalism’. But, as WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus commented, the response to the pandemic must be a collective one. Pandemics do not acknowledge borders.
Vaccine Nationalism is more than just selfish, it’s dangerous. It is amongst unvaccinated populations that mutations can develop more easily, and the longer those populations remain unvaccinated, the higher the likelihood is of a vaccine-resistant variant.
We’ve just witnessed a mass rollout of the booster vaccinations in response to the spread of the Omicron variant – what if that variant had been resistant to the vaccine? It wouldn’t have mattered that the UK population had both jabs. Nationalistic attitudes will not protect us from a vaccine-resistant variant, they will condemn us.
It’s not just that we’re getting priority access to these vaccines either – we’re getting cheaper vaccines. Despite pledges from companies such as Oxford-AstraZeneca to keep the vaccine at cost price for developing countries, WHO data suggests that the average price for covid vaccinations amongst these countries is around £5.12 per dose – significantly higher than the reported £2.17 for the UK or £1.56 for the EU.
COVAX was established in response to this: a global vaccine sharing scheme with 144 countries participating, but COVAX has been mired in criticism from the beginning. Emails and calls from ambassadors were ignored. Vaccines were being delivered alarmingly close to their expiration dates. Attempting to counteract the global divide in vaccination, COVAX has not been anywhere near as successful as envisioned – having delivered 200 million doses by August 2021 instead of the projected 600 million.
It’s in their own interest for wealthy countries to help vaccinate the world. Yet such countries are doing the bare minimum, leaving developing countries to pay out of pocket for the safety of the global population. At the heart of efforts to increase the accessibility of these vaccines are measures to waive the intellectual property rights, which would theoretically allow lower income countries to manufacture their own vaccines. But healthcare professionals in these countries warn that this is not the miracle cure it is being made out to be.
Producing vaccines from scratch requires advanced manufacturing plants that developing countries don’t have, and it is not something that can be built in time to meet the WHO’s goal. Instead, the solution might be simpler – these countries simply need easier access to the vaccines and the funds to deliver them efficiently. Countries such as Kenya and Ghana already have the healthcare infrastructure in place: childhood vaccinations in both countries are above 80%. Healthcare professionals in Kenya want to continue the door-to-door vaccination model that they have used in the past, but currently lack the resources to do so. The solution lies in dismantling the profiteering that is occurring around the vaccine.
It’s time that governments stopped looking inward and worked together to close the global divide in vaccination.
There’s only one way for governments to protect their own populations, and that’s to work together and achieve global vaccination as soon as possible.