Inequity in Global COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

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Image Credit: “COVID-19 Vaccine” by Marian Vejcik is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0

Ria Mehrotra, Staff Writer

While President Joe Biden has fulfilled his campaign promise to distribute 100 million vaccines in his first 100 days in office, much of the world is still lagging behind. As of the first week of March, the number of reported COVID cases across the continent of Africa, concentrated in South Africa, Morocco, and Tunisia, represented around 4,003,008, or 3.4% of the world’s infections. 

This is further exacerbated by the evident global health inequity in COVID-19 vaccine distribution over the world. By the end of 2020, most wealthy countries had access to vaccines: Canada had enough to vaccinate its population more than four times over and the United States more than three times over. However, most of the developing world hasn’t been as fortunate. As of early March, only 55 vaccine doses had been administered in the world’s 29 poorest countries, all of which were in Guinea. Africa as a whole is suffering in particular. In February, a new strain of COVID-19 was detected in South Africa. African leaders are frustrated by the lack of care of the wealthy world for the new strain or the lack of resources to help. For example, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed insisted that healthcare equipment be fairly distributed, not “hoarded by the rich and the few.”  Steve Cockburn, head of economic and social justice at Amnesty International, commented on this saying, “Rich countries have clear human rights obligations not only to refrain from actions that could harm access to vaccines elsewhere but also to cooperate and provide assistance to countries that need it.”

There has been some response to the frustrations of leaders in the developing world who want to protect their population but lack the resources to do so. Recently, Gavi, the World Health Organization, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) launched the COVAX initiative, which aims to vaccinate 20% of the most vulnerable population globally. While this is a noble goal, COVAX is unfortunately off to a slow start. It needs at least $2 billion more to achieve its goal of providing around 2 billion doses to 180 countries. Furthermore, experts state that herd immunity will only be reached after at least 70% of the population has been vaccinated. In other words, COVAX is struggling to reach a goal that is not sufficient to achieve herd immunity. However, there have been some successes. Nations that were not expected to receive doses until later this year have already administered their first vaccines. For example, war-torn Yemen recently received its first vaccines on March 31 of this year. Professor Edwin Trevathan, Director of Vanderbilt’s Institute for Global Health, says that although COVAX is a great initiative, “they need more support from high-income countries to be successful.” 

The discussion of global health inequity is complicated and contentious, exemplified by the recent reveal of French doctors Camille Locht and Jean-Paul Mira claiming that Africa could be used as a testing ground for the COVID-19 vaccine during a TV debate about the coronavirus and possible treatments on TV channel LCI. This implied a practice that dates back to the Holocaust or slavery, where Jewish or African people were used for experiments. There’s an implication of inferiority and a relationship to animal testing. This statement was condemned by many people, including the head of the World Health Organization. One of the doctors later issued an apology. However, their message was clear: while low-income countries are not deserving of already existing vaccines that wealthy nations have, they are the perfect grounds to be tested on.

Global health inequity is an ongoing discussion and is one that has been going on for decades. The COVID-19 pandemic is not an exception, but a rule that, according to the director-general of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, puts the world on the brink of moral failure. Director Trevathan also put it succinctly, saying, “As we enter what will likely be an age of pandemics (there will be more), those of us in rich countries must realize that viruses do not recognize political ideologies or borders. None of us are safe until all of us have global health security.”

Image Credit: “COVID-19 Vaccine” by Marian Vejcik is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0