COVID-19 Vaccine: The Struggle for the Developing World
By Luke Foster, Analyst at the University of Bristol Politics Society
On December 2nd 2020 hope emerged in the global fight against COVID-19, with the United Kingdom approving the first vaccine for the deadly virus, produced by Pfizer-BioNTech. In his address to Parliament, the UK's Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, described it "as a day to remember, frankly, in a year to forget" (Hancock, 2020). Later in December, several other countries followed the UK's footsteps, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) also authorising the vaccine for emergency use. For a large portion of the world, there is light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel; but this beacon of hope is only visible to those in more affluent countries, whilst developing countries lag behind. They miss out on vaccines, but the developing world will also likely experience an increased struggle in the fight against "measles, malaria, polio and many other fatal diseases" during and after the COVID-19 pandemic (UN, 2020).
In preparation for the vaccine rollout, developed countries spread their bets across multiple vaccines, buying up doses far in excess of what was necessary – totalling "more than half the doses that could come on the market by the end of next year” (Twohey et al., 2020). To grant an idea of this scale: if all vaccine contracts signed by developed countries do translate to actual doses, the EU could vaccinate all its citizens twice over, the UK and US four times over and Canada six times over (Twohey et al., 2020). Now that vaccines are beginning to be approved, there is further competition for acquiring early doses. Amongst all of this, questions are beginning to arise around vaccine provision for the developing world.
The scale of these deals shows the evident disparity between developed and developing countries in terms of vaccine provision – whilst some of the "world’s richest countries have reserved enough doses to immunise their own multiple times over”, most of the world’s poorest nations will only be able to vaccinate 20 percent of their populations (Twohey et al., 2020). Anna Marriott, Health Policy Manager at Oxfam has spoken of her worry that unless something does change dramatically, “billions of people around the world will not receive a safe and effective vaccine for Covid-19 for years to come” (Picheta, 2020).
The ‘People's Vaccine Alliance’ have identified 67 countries without sufficient vaccine provision, five of which; “Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan and Ukraine - have reported more than 1.5 million combined cases”; without a vaccine, these countries have a long road to recovery. There has been an attempt by the WHO to arrange alternative universal vaccine provision - known as COVAX – to avoid countries such as these missing out. Despite the involvement of at least 172 countries, a study by Duke University's Global Health Institute has found that only 250 million doses have been confirmed as purchased under the scheme, falling far short of what is required (Picheta, 2020).
As well as a lack of COVID-19 vaccines, the developing world has other problems to face as a result of the pandemic; the United Nations health agency has warned that COVID-19 is threatening global progress against malaria (UN, 2020). Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic health services worldwide have been strained; although most malaria prevention campaigns could operate at a near-normal capacity, the WHO has said that even low-level disruptions in access to treatment could “lead to a considerable loss of life” (UN, 2020). Even a 10 percent disruption to antimalarial treatment could lead to 19,000 deaths in sub-Saharan Africa, whilst a 50 percent disruption could lead to 100,000 deaths across the region (UN, 2020). Matshidiso Moeti – the WHO Regional Director for Africa – has emphasised the need to ensure that malaria programmes are sustained and expanded during the pandemic; she has warned that “COVID-19 threatens to further derail our efforts to overcome malaria” and that “international partners and countries need to do more to ensure that the resources are there to expand malaria programmes which are making such a difference in people’s lives” (UN, 2020).
Despite the recent vaccine progress of developed countries in the fight against COVID-19, the developing world is yet to see similar success. Due to the nature of pandemics being a global problem, it is important that a global solution is found. Lois Chingandu, the Director of Frontline AIDS, has echoed this sentiment, by arguing that the “global economy will continue to suffer so long as much of the world does not have access to a vaccine” and that we must “put pharmaceutical industry profit aside during this unprecedented pandemic, both to save humanity and the economy” (Oxfam, 2020). Until there is true accessibility to COVID-19 vaccines globally, this pandemic is far from over.
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Hancock, Matt (2020) ‘Statement to The House of Commons’, 2 December, House of Commons, London, available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSQzG4T8e4U&ab_channel=SkyNews, accessed 6 January 2021.
Oxfam (2020) ‘Campaigners warn that 9 out of 10 people in poor countries are set to miss out on COVID-19 vaccine next year’ available at https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/campaigners-warn-9-out-10-people-poor-countries-are-set-miss-out-covid-19-vaccine, accessed 7 January 2021.
Picheta, Rob (2020) ‘Rich countries are hoarding Covid-19 vaccines and leaving the developing world behind, People's Vaccine Alliance warns’, available at https://edition.cnn.com/2020/12/09/europe/covid-vaccine-inequality-developing-world-intl-scli/index.html, accessed 7 January 2020.
Twohey, Megan, Collins, Keith and Thomas, Katie (2020) ‘With First Dibs on Vaccines, Rich Countries Have ‘Cleared the Shelves’’, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/15/us/coronavirus-vaccine-doses-reserved.html, accessed 6 January 2020.
UN (2020) ‘COVID-19 threatens global progress against malaria, warns UN health agency, available at https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/11/1078752, accessed 7 January 2021.
UN (2020) ‘World’s Most Vulnerable Countries Lack the Capacity to Respond to a Global Pandemic’, available at https://www.un.org/ohrlls/news/world%E2%80%99s-most-vulnerable-countries-lack-capacity-respond-global-pandemic-credit-mfdelyas-alwazir, accessed 6 January 2021.