As COVID-19 deaths have skyrocketed in Africa by 80 percent in the past four weeks due to the more transmissible Delta variant, global anxiety and outrage are surging over an unfair distribution of vaccines to developing nations, many of them in Africa.
When the Delta variant was first detected in India, developed countries did little to help, sending a few vaccine doses when the disease was already ravaging Indians and killing them by the thousands. Now that it is the dominant strain in the United States, the Delta variant is sending thousands of people to hospitals across the nation, many are likely to die. Masks are being reimposed and businesses will likely suffer. But the world has not learned its lessons.
Although about 79 million vaccine doses have arrived in Africa, 16.4 million from the United States and others mainly from money pledged by the United States to COVAX, between 1.5 and 1.6 percent of the people in the continent have been fully vaccinated, and only 2 percent of vaccines administered globally have been in Africa. And as the death toll increases, anxiety and anger are finally growing across the world.
On Saturday, the Task Force on COVID-19 Vaccines, Therapeutics and Diagnostics for Developing Countries, established by the heads of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank Group, World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization to identify and resolve finance and trade impediments to vaccine, diagnostics, therapeutic production and deliveries, raised the alarm over the unequal distribution of vaccines and called for immediate action.
“We reiterate the urgency of providing access to COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments to people throughout the developing world. In the area of vaccines, a key constraint is the acute and alarming shortage in the supply of doses to low and low-middle income countries, especially for the rest of 2021. We call on countries with advanced COVID-19 vaccination programs to release as soon as possible as much of their contracted vaccine doses and options as possible to COVAX, AVAT, and low and low-middle income countries,” they said in a statement. “We are concerned that vaccine delivery schedules and contracts for COVAX, AVAT, and low and low-middle income countries are delayed or too slow. Less than 5% of vaccine doses that were pre-purchased by or for low-income countries have been delivered. Our common target is for at least 40% of people in low and low-middle income countries to be vaccinated by the end of 2021. We estimate that less than 20% of the necessary vaccines is currently scheduled for delivery to these countries, whether through COVAX, AVAT, or bilateral deals and dose-sharing agreements.”
They urged COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers “to redouble their efforts to scale up production of vaccines specifically for these countries, and to ensure that the supply of doses to COVAX and low and low-middle income countries takes precedence over the promotion of boosters and other activities.”
They wrote: “We call on governments to reduce or eliminate barriers to the export of vaccines and all materials involved in their production and deployment. We underscore the urgent need for all parties to address supply chain and trade bottlenecks for vaccines, testing, and therapeutics as well as all of the materials involved in their production and deployment.
“As per the IMF staff’s US$50 billion proposal to end the pandemic, and in line with the priorities set out by WHO, WTO, IMF and the World Bank Group, over $35 billion in grant are needed with only one third of this financed to date. We welcome the recent announcement by COVAX and the World Bank to accelerate vaccine supplies for developing countries through a new financing mechanism. We also welcome the partnership between the World Bank and AVAT, noting that World Bank financing is now available to support the purchase and deployment of doses secured by both AVAT and COVAX.
“It is critical to improve clarity and transparency around the evolving vaccine market, expected production volumes, delivery schedules, and pre-purchase options. We call on manufacturers to accelerate delivery to developing countries and we call on advanced economies to scale-up near-term deliveries to developing countries.”
“The Task Force also launched a new website that includes the first phase of a global database, and country dashboards on vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics to guide their work and advocacy.
“The database and dashboards, which also build on the IMF-WHO COVID-19 Vaccine Supply Tracker, seek to focus international attention and mobilize action by illuminating specific gaps, not just globally but also country-by-country.”
Their call came only a day after the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Friday lamented that only 1.5 percent people in Africa have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus because of a lack of vaccines, even as deaths skyrocketed in the past four weeks amid the surging, more transmissible Delta variant.
“On average, in five of WHO’s six regions, infections have increased by 80%, or nearly doubled, over the past four weeks. In Africa, deaths have increased by 80% over the same period. Much of this increase is being driven by the highly-transmissible Delta variant, which has now been detected in at least 132 countries,” the WHO chief said at his regular press briefing in Geneva.
Last week, almost 4 million infections were reported to WHO last week, and on current trends, it is expected that the total number of cases would pass 200 million within the next two weeks.
The answer, he said, is to get as many people vaccinated as possible while also observing public health measures the organization has been recommending for over a year.
Yet, while the WHO’s goal remains to support every country to vaccinate at least 10% of its population by the end of September, at least 40% by the end of this year, and 70% by the middle of next year, less than 2% of all doses administered globally have been in Africa.
Highlighting vaccine disparity among countries, Dr. Tedros said “so far, just over half of countries have fully vaccinated 10% of their population, less than a quarter of countries have vaccinated 40%, and only 3 countries have vaccinated 70%.”
“Almost a year ago, WHO began to express concern about the threat of ‘vaccine nationalism’; In a press conference in November, we warned of the risk that the world’s poor would be “trampled in the stampede for vaccines”; And at WHO’s Executive Board meeting in January this year, we said the world was on the verge of a “catastrophic moral failure”,” the WHO chief said. “And yet the global distribution of vaccines remains unjust. All regions are at risk, but none more so than Africa. On current trends, nearly 70% of African countries will not reach the 10% vaccination target by the end of September. Around 3.5 million to 4 million doses are administered weekly on the continent, but to meet the September target this must rise to 21 million doses at the very least each week. Many African countries have prepared well to roll out vaccines, but the vaccines have not arrived.”
Dr. Tedros said while WHO has warned that the COVID-19 virus has been changing since it was first reported, and it continues to change, “so far, four variants of concern have emerged, and there will be more as long as the virus continues to spread.”
Warning that “hard-won gains are in jeopardy or being lost, and health systems in many countries are being overwhelmed,” Dr. Tedros blamed the rise in COVID-19 cases on “increased social mixing and mobility, the inconsistent use of public health and social measures, and inequitable vaccine use.”
He said the increased number of infections is creating a shortage of treatments such as life-saving oxygen with twenty-nine countries having high and rising oxygen needs while many countries are having inadequate supplies of basic equipment to protect frontline health workers.
“WHO is supporting countries with supplies of oxygen, with guidance to help countries better detect variants, and we continue to work daily with our global networks of experts to understand why the Delta variant spreads so readily,” he said.
Dr. Tedros announced that in response to the Delta surge, the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator on Friday launched the Rapid ACT-Accelerator Delta Response, or RADAR, issuing an urgent call for 7.7 billion U.S. dollars for tests, treatments and vaccines.
“In parallel, we will need additional financing this year for COVAX to exercise its options to purchase vaccines for 2022,” he said. “This investment is a tiny portion of the amount governments are spending to deal with COVID-19.The question is not whether the world can afford to make these investments; it’s whether it can afford not to.”