Billions of people in more than 100 countries haven’t even had the chance to get a COVID vaccine yet

Woman in purple receiving COVID-19 vaccine from nurse
Photo via Maryland GovPics/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Rich countries are vastly outperforming poor countries when it comes to vaccine distribution. 

75% of all vaccine doses have been administered to just 10 wealthy nations, according to World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Meanwhile, 130 countries that account for 2.5 billion people have yet to receive a single dose. 

Tedros and other WHO leaders at an OECD forum criticized wealthier nations for hoarding vaccines, according to the Canada Broadcasting Company (CBC). The CBC reports that Canada pre-purchased substantially more vaccine doses than its current population. That includes 1.9 million doses from COVAX, an international program designed to support countries that cannot afford vaccines. 

“It’s understandable that governments want to prioritize vaccinating their own health workers and older people first,” Tedros said. “But it’s not right to vaccinate young, healthy adults in rich countries before health workers and older people in low-income nations.” 

WHO created COVAX to ensure developing countries have access to vaccines. Its first doses are supposed to begin distribution in early 2021, with plans to give out 2 billion doses internationally by the end of the year. 

Critics of the program have voiced concern that it isn’t working fast enough.  According to ABC News, many desperate, poor countries aren’t willing to wait for vaccines from COVAX and are independently buying vaccines like rich nations. Critics worry these purchases will affect available supply for COVAX and undermine the program, perpetuating inequitable vaccine distribution.

WHO leaders say inequitable access to COVID-19 vaccines won’t just hurt poor countries in the long run. It will also hurt wealthier countries. 

The longer COVID-19 is allowed to spread worldwide, the more mutant strains will arise, and current vaccines could lose their high efficacy rates. The South Africa mutation has already shown resistance to the AstraZeneca vaccine. Interconnection between countries means that these mutations will continue to spread globally and lengthen the time it takes to defeat the pandemic.  

In a WHO press conference, Gavi CEO Dr. Seth Berkely said COVID mutations like the South Africa strain show why it’s imperative to have an equitable and global vaccine rollout. 

“Priority needs to be given to vaccinating high-risk groups everywhere to ensure maximum global protection against old and new strains, and to minimize, as best the vaccine can, the risk of transmission,” Berkley said. “Because we know the more that the virus is allowed to spread, the more it is allowed to be transmitted, the more opportunity it has to adapt and mutate.” 

Inequitable distribution of the vaccines also impacts the global economy. 

A study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research states that unequal vaccine access among countries could cost the global economy between $1.8 trillion and $3.8 trillion. Up to 50% of the losses will likely be paid by wealthier nations. The cost of vaccinating one-fifth of the world’s vulnerable population could cost up to $40 billion. 

If an emerging country is still struggling to contain COVID and is forced to lock down factories or production facilities, it will affect the global supply chain. 

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Sources: Poynter, CBC, ABC, WHO, NBER

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