The vaccine volume is gradually increasing but…

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Africa’s vaccine rollout. Credit: DW

For most countries, the third wave of COVID-19 has resulted in a soaring number of infections, with hospitalisations reaching a record high. Vaccines across the world have proven to be effective, with lower death rates and hospitalisations overall. However, only a small percentage of the world has access to them. With international politics, profiteering, and domestic complacency, most vaccines do not end up in the countries where they were manufactured or most needed.

As of July 2021, only 25.3% of the global population has had one dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine. Of the 3.4 billion doses that have been distributed worldwide, only 1% has been administered to low-income countries.

The Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, spoke about this recently at this year’s National Diaspora Day celebration in Abuja. She said:

“The vaccine volume is actually increasing. In June, they had 1.1 billion doses more vaccines produced globally, 45 per cent more than the amount in May. The bad news is that most of those doses end up in the developed countries, and the vaccine inequity continues.”

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Africa vaccine tent. Credit: Devex

We were already in a world of unprecedented inequality between rich and poor nations. The ideal that the world’s healthcare teams were going to be vaccinated first before vaccines were made available to the general public was highly unrealistic, with nations like the UK already buying up over 270 million doses of the vaccine against a population of 66 million, enough to vaccinate its population twice and then some.

All of this makes the world’s current vaccine inequality particularly concerning. At an April conference on vaccine availability in Africa, Stephane Bancel, CEO at Moderna, told attendees that there was no spare capacity. Every time a box of vaccines is made available, it is immediately shipped out for delivery. Moderna is already running behind in comparison to companies such as Pfizer, but what does this mean for countries that now want to develop booster shots? Will this serve as another obstacle in vaccinating those key front-line healthcare workers in poorer, developing countries?

All that being said, are there even vaccines left to buy? For example, Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) received 600,000 doses of vaccine from COVAX (a facility dedicated to providing access to vaccines, regardless of wealth). Initial uptake of the vaccine in the country was slow to start due to public hesitancy as a result of misinformation. However, despite the political uncertainty in the country spurred by the 2021 election, the government focused on countering anti-vaxxers and has now vaccinated 850,000 people. Cote D’Ivoire used up its COVAX allowance and then some, but no vaccines were left to buy.

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Ivory Coast receiving its allowance of vaccines from COVAX. Credit: The Independent

How can we solve an inequity when the solution isn’t even in our hands anymore? Are we left to rely on richer, more developed countries to share their vaccine uptake with us? Or do we continue with herd immunity and wait for vaccines to come back into stock?

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala condemns what she calls a “worrying imbalance in the distribution of coronavirus vaccines between rich and poor countries.” She reiterates the need for Nigeria and the continent of Africa itself to produce their own vaccines.

“We understand that COVAX, where I was one of the founding members, is doing better. It has already sent 130 million doses to developing countries, but it was supposed to have done about 500 million by now. So hopefully, this will happen this summer, July-August, so that will improve things a little. But what we are trying to do is to say let us not be dependent on other people all the time. We cannot as a continent continue to import 99 per cent of our vaccines and 90 per cent of our pharmaceuticals. 

“What we are now pushing is for house to develop that industry in Africa. And the AU ACDC (African Union together with the Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention) is working very hard, and in our country, the minister of health, the CDC (Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention), have been working very hard to also see that we can attract some [vaccine] companies. We can even develop our own vaccines. Two Nigerians in the diaspora I hear have developed vaccines which they are experimenting now. So that is the right direction.”