About a week ago, the world reached a remarkable milestone. Only 14 months after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and four months after it approved the first vaccine for emergency use, over one billion doses of vaccines have been inoculated worldwide.
More than 500 million people have now been vaccinated, which is about 7% of the world’s population of 7.79 billion. It is an exceptional result.
But both between nations and within nations, vaccine distribution has been highly unequal.
So far, three-quarters of all the doses have been given in 10 wealthier nations, while the rest of the world lags behind.
“As a small country, we expected this to happen,” says Nevio Sarmento, a Timorese microbiologist and member of the Timor-Leste National Immunisation Technical Advisory Group.
Scientists say that if we want to bring the pandemic under control, we need to vaccinate more than 75% of the global population. We are only one tenth of the way from getting out of the acute phase of the pandemic, but the uneven distribution of vaccines is threatening to slow progress towards this goal.
“This pandemic is nowhere to be over,” says Dr Meru Sheel, a global health researcher and infectious diseases epidemiologist at the Australian National University.
Globally, infection cases are at the highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, with an average of over 800,000 new cases every day over the past two weeks. Deaths are on the rise.
“If we are to get out of this acute phase of the pandemic, then frontline workers, health care workers, elderly people and all those at risk of ending up in hospital need to be vaccinated at the same pace in the world,” Sheel says.
As long as the virus spreads, variants can emerge, putting vaccines’ efficacy at risk.
Leaving the virus running rampant in other countries is a national matter, not just for Australia. Ensuring global vaccine equity is in high-income countries’ self-interest.
“Only a collective approach will reduce the size of the pandemic and bring back some kind of normalcy across the world,” says Sheel.
To smooth the disparity between high-income countries and low- and middle-income countries, the WHO, the Vaccine Alliance Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) launched the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility or COVAX.
COVAX aims to provide equitable access to vaccines to all countries, ensuring that all health workers and vulnerable people are vaccinated at the same time across the world. So far, over four million doses have been distributed in low- and middle-income countries.
In addition, many countries have pledged to donate vaccine doses to countries in need. Australia has committed to distributing 10,000 doses of locally manufactured AstraZeneca to the Pacific Islands, PNG and Timor Leste every week.
Discussion around lifting the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIP) are rising. The TRIP waiver would allow countries to suspend the protection of intellectual property for COVID-19 products, allowing more companies to manufacture them.
“If [wealthier countries] could share, or lessen their orders and prioritise other countries, then there is something that we will really appreciate,” says Sarmento.
Dr Manuela Callari is a Sydney-based freelance science writer who specialises in health and medical stories.
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