UK government urged to share Covid vaccine doses with world’s poorest countries amid ‘alarming’ shortages

Only 0.1 per cent of vaccine doses administered globally have been in world’s 50 poorest countries, analysis shows

Samuel Lovett
Saturday 06 February 2021 08:33 GMT
Matt Hancock confirms all over-50s to be offered vaccine by May

The UK government has been urged to start sharing its vaccine supplies with the world’s poorest countries after new analysis revealed that these nations have so far administered just 0.1 per cent of all doses globally.

More than 120 million jabs have been rolled out to date, yet 70 per cent of these have been administered in the 50 richest countries in the world, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

In contrast, only 0.1 per cent of vaccine doses have been administered in the world’s 50 poorest countries, the IFRC said.

The IFRC’s analysis yielded a similar picture of disparity when it compared the number of doses distributed within a country against its rating on the Human Development Index (HDI), which measures life expectancy, education and capita income indicators within a nation.

Roughly 95 per cent of all vaccine doses administered to date have been in countries classified as “very high” or “high” on the HDI. The IFRC said it has seen no evidence of any doses being administered in countries classified as either “very low” or “low” on the HDI.

When looking at indicators of a country’s wellbeing, such as its maternal mortality ratio, the IFRC found that those nations with a poor health system were struggling to deliver doses to their population.

In countries that have administered less than 1 dose per 100 people, the average maternal mortality rate stands at 200 deaths per 100,000, according to the IFRC’s analysis.

Global health groups have described the analysis as “deeply alarming” and said it was indicative of the “huge inequalities” that have been further entrenched throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. A report published on Saturday by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism documents growing fears of a vaccine apartheid.

“These figures are a shameful indictment of wealthy countries who have been hoarding vaccines,” said Global Justice Now, which campaigns on issues of trade, health care and justice in the developing world.

Research commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation shows that the equitable distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines globally would prevent 61 per cent of future deaths, compared to 33 per cent if doses are monopolised by 47 of the world’s richest nations.

Britain itself has amassed one of the largest vaccine stockpiles in the world, having ordered more than 400 million shots – enough to inoculate its entire population three times over.

On Thursday, health secretary Matt Hancock said the film Contagion partly influenced his approach to placing huge orders with vaccine manufacturers as early as possible.

The government has suggested the UK could share “excess” vaccine doses with neighbouring and developing countries but has not indicated when. “In future months we hope to be in a position to help other countries with vaccine supply," trade secretary Liz Truss said last week.

However, campaigners have called on Britain to act sooner rather than later in sharing its doses to avoid prolonging the acute phase of the pandemic and minimise the risk of more dangerous variants emerging.

“We need to ensure that the supplies that we have right now are distributed equitably,” Roz Scourse, a research and policy officer at Médecins Sans Frontières, told The Independent. “Healthcare workers and vulnerable people should get priority access wherever they live.

“For high income countries, such as the UK, this means sharing what they have with other countries so that priority groups can be vaccinated in other countries.

“There is currently not enough to go around, we have to make sure that what we have is distributed according to needs globally. This is the only way to protect the world’s most vulnerable and will also be the quickest route to ending this pandemic for all of us.”

She pointed out that of the 119 million doses that had been administered globally up to 5 February, only 55 of these were in one country in sub-Saharan Africa, in Guinea.

These figures are a shameful indictment of wealthy countries who have been hoarding vaccines

Global Justice Now

“Right now, healthcare workers and vulnerable people living in the majority of low- and middle-income countries including places that MSF works such as Mozambique, Malawi and Eswatini, have little or no access to Covid-19 vaccines,” she added.

Gwen Eamer, a public health emergencies officer at IFRC, admitted it was human nature to “look after our own first in a crisis”, but said that “sometimes we need help to recognise the importance of humanity for everyone”.

“Viruses are agnostic about borders," she told The Independent. “The more transmission there is in other countries, whether on other side of planet or next door, the more opportunities there are for mutations in the virus. Every once in a while one of those mutations will cause increases in transmission or mortality.”

She said it was a matter “of equity, of humanity, of fundamentally doing the right thing” to ensure access for all, and particularly those on the frontline in the fight against Covid-19.

“If you’ve got nurses in a low-income country providing direct care to Covid patients without the protection of a vaccine that does exist, and you’re starting to roll out vaccination for someone who is a low risk category elsewhere, then something has fundamentally gone wrong,” Ms Eamer added.

“It is a failure if we’re vaccinating people who are not high exposure to Covid in rich countries while those on the front lines in other countries are not protected.”

Earlier this week, the global vaccine alliance spearheaded by the World Health Organisation announced its plan to distribute more than 330 million doses to developing nations in the first half of 2021.

The Covax Facility was first established in April “to secure access to safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines” through a portfolio of candidates.

It aims to deliver at least two billion doses by the end of 2021 – the majority of which will cover 20 per cent of people in 92 low- and middle-income countries, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In an interim plan published on Wednesday, the Covax Facility said its doses will cover more than 3 per cent of the world’s poorest populations by the middle of the year, with the first deliveries expected towards the end of the month.

To help scale up the global production of vaccines, global health charity STOPAIDS argued “we need big pharma to give up their monopolies and to share the knowledge of how these vaccines can be produced”.

“This will not only speed up and maximise manufacturing capacity; it will also make products more affordable by enabling generic competition to help drive down prices,” James Cole, an advocacy officer at the charity, told The Independent.

“A landmark proposal is currently being debated at the World Trade Organisation that would see the temporary removal of big pharma monopolies on all Covid-19 health technology. This would allow more countries to manufacture and access these vital tools. 

“But shamefully, the same rich countries that have secured a majority of the world’s Covid-19 vaccine doses are the same ones opposing it.”

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