The next COVID-19 crisis: A vaccine apartheid endangering us all

The West bought billions of vaccines fast and cheap, leaving poorer nations waiting longer and paying more.

Published by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Summary published with permission. Read in full.

Senam Agbesi has been trying to make the best of lockdown in London. “I’ve done lots of Zooms, lots of walks,” he said. The 34-year-old NHS manager believes he could get the vaccine this month, as he is starting a new job that would mean visiting hospitals regularly.

Despite the good news about his own vaccine, he worries about his father, Yao, who lives in Accra, Ghana. Yao is 65 and has sickle cell trait, a condition that puts him at higher risk of suffering severe illness if he catches COVID-19.

Yao has not been given any information about being vaccinated nor seen any concrete information in the media about when any vaccines will arrive. Predictions suggest that the majority of the Ghanaian population will not be vaccinated until 2023, and some other sub-Saharan countries will be waiting until 2024.

Not only will poorer countries be forced to wait, but many are already being charged much higher prices for every dose. Uganda, for example, has announced a deal for millions of vaccines from AstraZeneca, at a price of $7 a dose – more than three times what the EU paid for the same jab. Including transport fees, it will cost $17 to fully vaccinate one Ugandan.

Campaigners and scientists warn that we are on course for a “vaccine apartheid” in which people living in the global south are inoculated years after those in the West.

The effects of this inequity would be stark. Modelling by Northeastern University indicates that if the first 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines were distributed proportionally by national population, worldwide deaths would fall by 61%. But if the doses are monopolised by 47 of the world’s richest countries, only 33% fewer people will die.

If there is equal access to vaccines globally, deaths would fall by 61%.
Prioritise the rich – that falls to 33%.

Distracted by in-fighting and protectionism in the West, we are sleepwalking into a world that will suffer more cases, more economic chaos and more deaths.

A deadly and destructive delay

Without equal access to vaccines, there are fears many lower-income countries will not have enough stock to inoculate key populations, including healthcare workers, in 2021. On the ground, health workers are struggling. “The situation is very tense,” said Ireen Mutombwa, national disaster management co-ordinator at the South African Red Cross. “Everyone’s life is at risk, especially when you are someone who is involved in working with the community.”

Scientists are also concerned that allowing the virus to thrive unabated in some countries could lead to greater risk for all. “The more circulation there is, the more opportunity there is for the virus to mutate,” said Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, a virologist and director of research at Inserm. Mutated variants could result in more direct deaths in under-vaccinated countries, and may potentially make vaccines less effective over time.

Read in full over on the Bureau’s site.

The complete article details where the majority of the world’s vaccines are going (high-income countries), many of which have purchased enough doses to vaccinate their population twice, or even up to five times over.

The investigation also looks in more detail at huge pricing disparities, and how commitments being made, both by richer countries and pharmaceutical companies, to ensure global access and fair pricing, are not being upheld.