Oxford Covid jab creator criticises west for ‘embarrassment of riches’ in vaccine supply

Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert says ‘no one is safe until we are all safe’

Matt Mathers
Wednesday 06 October 2021 21:52
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One of the creators of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid jab has hit out at the west’s “embarrassment of riches” in vaccine supply as she called on world leaders to do more to ensure developing countries can immunise their populations during the next phase of the pandemic.

In a letter published in the Science Translational Medicine journal on Wednesday, Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, of Oxford University, repeated the mantra that “no one is safe until we are all safe” and urged rich countries to play their part in the equitable distribution of vaccines.

Countries that are less economically developed have received fewer jabs than rich countries such as the UK and the US.

By early September 2021, 41.5 per cent of the world’s population had received at least one dose of a vaccine, yet only 1.9 per cent of people in low-income countries had, Prof Gilbert wrote in the letter, co-authored with Dr Richard Hatchett, the chief executive of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

According to Our World in Data, 66 per cent of people in the UK have been fully inoculated, while more than half (55 per cent) of the US population have received both jabs. At the opposite end of the spectrum, in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania, fewer than 3 per cent of people have had a vaccination.

The letter states that the number of vaccine doses which become available each month “will increasingly provide opportunities to achieve this [equitable distribution] as long as all countries are prepared to receive and deliver these life-saving medical products”.

“Ensuring that they can do so will be one of the most urgent challenges in the next phase of the Covid-19 pandemic,” it says.

“In many high-income countries, more than 50 per cent of the population have received two doses of vaccine. In high-income countries, the next questions are whether, or when, booster doses should be administered and whether to extend vaccination to children in the pursuit of herd immunity.

“Such extensions of the use of Covid-19 vaccines by high-income countries will place additional pressure on global vaccine supplies and potentially further increase disparities between high-income countries and the rest of the world in terms of vaccine access.”

The letter continues: “It is more crucial than ever that we do not forget the lives that could be saved by administering first and second doses to the most vulnerable populations worldwide and the opportunity that the global distribution of vaccines provides to protect all of us by reducing the selection of further variants.”

However, the authors said that, fortunately, the number of vaccines being produced has increased “markedly” and even warned that there could be the prospect of an "embarrassment of riches" unless more is done to help lower-income countries get the infrastructure in place to offer more widespread vaccination.

“The proliferation of authorised Covid-19 vaccines and projected rapid growth in their aggregate supply has the potential to create an embarrassment of riches,” Prof Gilbert and Dr Hatchett wrote.

“Whereas constraints on the supply of a limited number of products in the initial stages of the vaccine rollout resulted in intense competition for these doses and grave inequities in their distribution, we can now imagine facing a very different problem in the coming months – one in which the volume of supply exceeds the capacity to absorb and dispense vaccine in the countries with the greatest outstanding needs.

“The new imperative for Covax, and for international relief efforts more generally, will be to support delivery at scale to ensure that recipient countries are able to reach their coverage goals quickly.”

Prof Gilbert said: “It’s encouraging to see that vaccine supply is becoming less of an issue, but no vaccine is effective until people have been vaccinated.

“There remain significant challenges, from transportation of a vaccine in a country – especially with vaccines that have to be kept ultra-cold – to intangibles such as the pervasiveness of vaccine hesitancy.

“In countries where coronavirus infections are widespread, the benefit of vaccination is far greater than the risk of any rare side-effects. Ensuring that these life-saving doses reach the people in danger is one of the most urgent challenges of the next phase of this global pandemic.”

Dr Hatchett added: “While over 6.3 billion doses of these vaccines have been administered to date, equitable access to these life-saving tools remains woefully inadequate and must be urgently addressed.”

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