This was the word used by the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) to describe the growing gap between the number of vaccines available to rich countries and the measly numbers given to developing countries. The latter rely mainly on COVAX, which was set up a year ago and was envisioned to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world. That vision is becoming more blurry even as the entire world remains in the clasp of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The numbers are appalling. More than 3.2 million people have so far died due to COVID worldwide. The WHO reported that “nearly 900 million vaccine doses have been administered globally, but over 81 percent have gone to high- or upper middle-income countries, while low-income countries have received just 0.3 percent” (underscoring mine).
The vaccination pace in the Philippines has been frustratingly slow partly because of this inequity in vaccine distribution. As of press time, local government units have paused their vaccination drives because of lack of supply. This comes as virus infection remain at a very high rate and the economy has slowed once again because of the tighter lockdown.
The Economist reported that the US and several other wealthy nations, including Canada and many European Union member states, are on track to vaccinate most of their populations by mid-2022. As of April 24, the United States has already fully vaccinated 91.2 million or 27.8 percent of its population. The United Kingdom has fully vaccinated 18.1 percent of its people (12.1 million). Most impressive is Israel which has a 55.3 percent full vaccination rate; the United Arab Emirates at 39.3 percent and Chile at 31.7 percent. In the Philippines, a total of 1.61 million doses have been administered with 215,000 fully vaccinated individuals representing a mere 0.2 percent of the total population. The COVAX facility, on the other hand, has delivered 40.5 million doses to 118 countries so far, with a target of secure two billion doses by the end of 2021.
Needless to say producing the vaccines and making sure that they are distributed in an equitable manner to all the peoples of the world is the most pressing challenge of our time. We need to address this inequity quickly. As the WHO correctly pointed out “the inequitable distribution of vaccines is not just a moral outrage, it’s also economically and epidemiologically self-defeating.” Rich countries are overflowing with vaccine supplies they now are able to vaccinate low risk and younger people while poorer countries still do not have the ability to protect health workers and those more at risk of contracting the virus.
Developed countries like the US and the UK surely realize that even when they vaccinate 100 percent of their population the world cannot return to normalcy because trade and travel will remain difficult as people from the unvaccinated world will continue to get sick and die. This will lead to more variants that will complicate our road to recovery. I understand, of course, the impulse to “protect our people first.” But this is a global problem which means the solution needs to be global as well.
In fact, my fear is that Filipinos who have been vaccinated already might lose their immunity before the rest of the population get vaccinated. This will defeat the idea of herd immunity. Experts and vaccine manufacturers have not yet determined how long the protection from vaccines last but some estimate it to be six months to a year. And for as long as a large segment of the population remain unprotected, infections and deaths will continue and variants might emerge which are resistant to the current batch of vaccines.
What we hope will happen is that rich countries would share their surplus to the rest of the world. An expert estimated that by July, there will be a surplus of almost up to half a billion doses in the United States. More importantly, companies like Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson should start sharing their technology with other competent manufacturers that can increase vaccine production around the world.