The development, administration and distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine has highlighted the economic divide between various countries over the world. According to the World Health Organization, Covid-19 vaccines have not yet been administered in some 130 countries and over 90 percent of countries currently administering the vaccine are considered high-income countries.
This gap increases the risk of serious consequences, such as outbreaks of variants in countries where vaccines are unavailable. Richer countries have therefore been called upon to support vaccination campaigns and the development of Covid-19 vaccines in poorer countries, not only for moral and ethical reasons, but also to safeguard the health of their citizens and avoid devastating economic consequences.
In an attempt to bridge this divide, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has launched a 100 million Swiss franc plan (roughly 108 million dollars) for the vaccination of 500 million people. However, support for this plan has yet to materialise, as only about 3 percent of the necessary funding has so far been raised. The Red Cross has warned that these new efforts to guarantee the free and fair distribution of Covid-19 vaccines risk failure unless the gaps in global immunisation policies and funding are quickly reduced.
Governments and international donors have so far focused most attention on the procurement and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines in developing countries, especially through the Covax initiative launched by WHO in collaboration with the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). The initiative aims to inoculate at least two billion people in low- and middle-income countries by the end of 2021.
According to the OCHA-HDX Covid-19 Data Explorer database, which analyses the progress of vaccination campaigns in developing countries where the initiative is underway, a total of 26 countries have so far been allocated 73 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine, of which 17 million have already been distributed and just 1.1 million administered.
Of the countries that have already received these first doses of Covid-19 vaccine, Nigeria is in the lead with over 3.9 million doses dispensed, followed by Ethiopia with 2.1 million, Myanmar with 2 million, Colombia with 1.8 million and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with 1.7 million. Other countries that have received doses of the vaccine under the Covax initiative are Afghanistan, Sudan, Mozambique, Venezuela, Pakistan, Ukraine, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia and Iraq. Ten countries are yet to receive the first doses of the vaccine: Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Haiti, Libya, Niger, South Sudan, Syria, Chad and Yemen.
Although international supply and distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine is crucial, it is often overlooked how these vaccines will be distributed within each country, such as how isolated and hard-to-reach communities are included in immunisation campaigns. For this reason, further efforts must be made to guarantee not only the supply and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, but also the implementation of initiatives designed to ensure effective access to vaccines by the entire population.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has stressed that, in order to guarantee fair and universal access to vaccines in all countries of the world, international cooperation must focus on three crucial points:
- creating adequate mechanisms to incentivise the quick completion of the most promising research and development projects, and to avoid that they are abandoned mid-way should the pandemic subside;
- ensuring large-scale manufacturing capability even before it is certain which candidates will be successful;
- establishing rules to manage intellectual property rights and procurement to ensure fair access, affordability and supply in sufficient quantities.
In view of this goal, G20 leaders have recently committed to ensuring the fair distribution of Covid-19 vaccines throughout the world and have reiterated their support of the poorest and most indebted countries. The Global Health Summit scheduled for the 21st of May 2021 in Italy – the G20’s rotating president – will be crucial as its goal is precisely to ensure equal allocation of the vaccine.
This will be an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of international cooperation for universal access to vaccines, a fundamental right that the pandemic has forced back into the centre of international debate.