PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania — The recent news that an effective coronavirus vaccine was developed by Pfizer and Moderna has sparked immense excitement and anticipation across the world. These vaccines could mean a long-awaited end to the past year of masks, lockdowns and social distancing. However, even if these vaccines are approved for the general public, they will not be immediately available for everybody. Shortage of doses raises further problems as well. If the global supply is too low to guarantee a vaccination for everybody, experts worry that wealthier countries in Europe and North America will buy a majority of those available, and COVID-19 vaccines in developing countries will be few and far between, despite being desperately needed.
The Uneven Distribution
Recent research from Duke University predicts a shocking lack of available vaccines for lower and middle-income countries over the next several years. The research also suggested that the wealthiest countries in the world, the U.S., China and several European countries, have already purchased the vast majority of all doses that will be produced this year. Statistics show that a total of five billion vaccinations have been reserved for the richest countries while less than 800 million will be available for other developing countries. COVID-19 vaccines in developing countries are going to be critically important in stopping preventable deaths, reviving the global economy and lowering global poverty levels. Furthermore, the fact that wealthier countries will vaccinate their citizens earlier means that those countries can begin reopening sooner, which will potentially widen global inequalities based on class, race and other social identifiers.
Africa, for example, has a history of losing out on medical advances against preventable diseases, from medicine for HIV/AIDS to a vaccine for bird flu. An article in “Nature” magazine stated that these mistakes must not be repeated when dealing with the current pandemic: “Africa, like all continents, needs an accessible vaccine to save the lives and health of vulnerable populations, and to maintain economic development […] many nations in Africa are reeling from the worst locust plague in 50 years, and a terrible drought is predicted to occur in East Africa. A COVID-19 vaccine could at least help to mitigate this dire situation,” the article states. For many developing countries, the pandemic has only exacerbated issues that have already existed. The consensus is slowly building among many world leaders that they are responsible for the equitable distribution of available vaccines and other resources.
GAVI and COVAX
Despite these fears, there are NGOs working with international governing organizations to distribute COVID-19 vaccines in developing countries. GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization) is a nonprofit organization that worked with individual governments as well as the international community to develop different vaccines and has helped to equitably distribute these vaccines all around the world. GAVI reports that they have vaccinated more than 822 million children, and prevented an estimated 14 million deaths that would have otherwise occurred. Vaccines are crucial to maintaining low global poverty rates. Local economies cannot thrive if the population is battling preventable diseases. NGOs such as GAVI have committed to continuing their work in order to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines in developing countries are accessible and affordable.
GAVI, along with several other public health groups, has created a plan called COVAX which would fight to give doses of the COVID vaccine to lower and middle-income countries at the same rate as wealthier countries. This initiative combines civil society with federal resources from governments around the world, as well as supranational organizations, “with the aim of providing innovative and equitable access to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines,” according to GAVI. COVAX functions by having the world’s wealthiest countries reserve vaccines for a certain proportion of the population dependent on how much money they contribute to the project. That funding helps ensure that at least 20% of the population in each of the developing countries in the program receive vaccinations as well.
The Need for Equity
While this agreement is an important start, there are notable absences. For one, the U.S. has refused to join this cause thus far. Additionally, the richest countries in the world have been negotiating directly with pharmaceutical companies who are creating potential vaccines in order to circumvent the COVAX plan and secure more doses of the vaccine. COVAX needs funds from countries that can finance their own vaccination supply in order to help provide for others that cannot. Without sufficient buy-in for COVAX, Duke researcher Andrea Taylor explains, “We’re heading into a scenario where the rich countries will have vaccines and the poorer countries are unlikely to have access.” Another issue that could arise is in regards to patents for any effective vaccine. Patenting a vaccine would prevent other companies from producing it, leading to a much longer timeframe in terms of production and thousands of otherwise avoidable cases of COVID-19.
Ultimately, while there are plenty of obstacles to the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in developing countries, there is reason to believe that it will be achieved. The very fact that an effective vaccine was reached so quickly is a testament to the scientific and technological will that already exists; the resources to provide a vaccine affordably and efficiently are already present. Finding political will to make sure that the global population is vaccinated remains the challenge.
– Leo Posel