There is little left until the 10 billionth dose comes out of the COVID-19 vaccine production lines. According to a recent report by Airfinity, a data research agency, the time will be reached in January when we will have produced enough doses for all adults on all continents. In June, the number of doses produced will reach 27 billion, enough to fully immunize the world’s population twice.
However, this triumph in manufacturing does not match how far we are failing in the race to vaccinate all adults in all countries. If current trends continue, more than half the world will remain unvaccinated next summer. We are simply not distributing the doses to the people who need them.
Until recently, this was due to an understandable vaccine shortage. But now we are facing an obvious and inexplicable failure in its equitable distribution. Poor countries, which have only immunized 2% of their adults, are being denied the vaccine, while access to doses remains monopolized by rich countries that have already administered the full regimen to more than 60% of their population. The reason thousands of people die this month and in the near future is not that few vaccines are being produced, but rather that they are being hoarded in the places that need them least.
A collective failure
There is currently no chance that the promise Boris Johnson made, on behalf of the G7 club of advanced economies, will be fulfilled that between 2021 and 2022 everyone would be vaccinated. More than 100 countries will not meet the September deadline to inoculate the first 10% of their population. As things stand, the odds of them meeting the December deadline to vaccinate 30% are low.
The World Health Organization (WHO) COVAX program is the high-volume purchasing mechanism created last year to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines. In June, G7 members promised COVAX that they would share 870 million doses with the poorest countries, but they have only delivered 100 million. Only 4% of all vaccines produced in the world have been channeled through the program.
Our collective failure to transform the scientific success of vaccines into real protection for all, to avoid a division of the world between those who have vaccines and those who do not, is a moral catastrophe. If the world were a state, we could say that it is a failed state.
We need a plan
We are in a race against time to change things. Countries with good vaccine coverage have broken the link between COVID-19 and high mortality rates, while those that remain without access suffer record hospitalizations and deaths with high infection rates.
It is not surprising that African countries have shown their anger. This week several African leaders, The Elder group (a global association of leaders promoted by Nelson Mandela) and NGOs from the continent have pleaded for equity in vaccines. Since they cannot continue to trust the promises of the West, created their own high-volume buying agency and now they set out to create their own vaccine manufacturing capacity.
But there is a way to go. The G7 should convene an emergency summit on vaccines, chaired by President Joe Biden and on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, to agree on a comprehensive plan to transfer unused supplies from the West and its delivery contracts to COVAX. doses, which are oversubscribed.
We have more than enough vaccines to do it. The production of vaccines has already reached 1,500 million monthly doses and by the end of the year it will exceed 2,000 million per month. By then, we will have accumulated more than 1 billion unused vaccines, a number that could exceed 2 billion by mid-2022.
Until recently, Western leaders could defend their decision to secure a dose reserve because they feared disruptions in the production chain. But right now there is enough capacity to warrant a growing flow of vaccines in the coming months. So many doses are being produced that the biggest risk now is that millions will be wasted.
We can start immediately. Western countries could release 500 million doses by the end of September and another 200 million each month thereafter. If they did, all low-income countries would reach the current vaccination levels of rich countries in less than a year: by mid-2022, they would already have enough doses to immunize 60% of their population.
Vaccine-rich nations don’t have to choose between boosters and donations. By next year, North America and Europe could vaccinate their population, including with the booster dose and with the immunization of those over 12 years old, donate to meet the needs of poor countries, and still have doses to spare for cover most eventualities. That date could be brought forward in months if China, the world’s largest manufacturer, can also contribute to this effort.
The economic cost is minimal compared to the benefits in the reactivation of employment, trade and exchanges. COVAX only needs $ 4 billion (about € 3.4 billion) to pay for its vaccine purchase scheduled for 2022. Full coverage – including treatment, such as medical oxygen, and diagnostic kits – would represent about $ 30 billion. dollars a year (about 25,400 million euros). It’s just 1.5% of the cost of Biden’s estimated COVID-19 stimulus plan, $ 1.9 trillion. If spread across advanced economies, it is perfectly affordable.
The challenge of our time
Denying vaccines to the world is counterproductive and will work against us. As the disease spreads among unvaccinated people, variants may emerge that threaten even our current vaccine coverage. It is not just the health and lives of countless millions of people that are hanging by a thread, it is also the sustainability of the global economic recovery and the possibility of inclusive and lasting prosperity.
England’s public health agency estimates that the British vaccination campaign has already saved 100,000 lives on its territory. We have to ask ourselves whether Africa and the rest of the world will trust us again if their citizens continue to die because they are not vaccinated. As the head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has said, equity in vaccines is the challenge of our time. It is also a test of whether the world is capable of combining the will to work together. We must do it.
Translated by Francisco de Zárate.