LONDON (AP) – The advent of the new omicron variant and the world’s desperate and probably futile attempt to keep …
LONDON (AP) – The emergence of the new omicron variant and the world’s desperate and probably futile attempt to keep it in check are reminders of what scientists have warned for months: The corona virus will thrive as long as large parts of the world are missing vaccines.
The rich countries’ hoarding of limited COVID-19 shots – creating virtual vaccine deserts in many of the poorer – means not only risk for those parts of the world that experience shortages; it threatens the entire globe.
This is because the more the disease spreads among unvaccinated populations, the more opportunities it has to mutate and potentially become more dangerous, prolonging the pandemic for all.
“The virus is a ruthless opportunist, and the inequality that has characterized the global response has now returned home,” said Dr. Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI, one of the groups behind the UN-backed COVAX firearms initiative.
Perhaps nowhere is inequality more evident than in Africa, where less than 7% of the population is vaccinated. South African researchers warned the World Health Organization about the new omicron variant last week, though it may never become clear where it first came from. Researchers are now rushing to determine if it is more contagious or able to avoid current vaccines.
COVAX should avoid such inequality – but instead the initiative unfortunately lacks shots and has already given up its original target of 2 billion doses.
Even to reach its scaled-down goal of distributing 1.4 billion doses by the end of 2021, it must ship more than 25 million doses every day. Instead, it has averaged just over 4 million a day since early October, with some days falling below 1 million, according to an Associated Press analysis of shipments.
Shipments in recent days have increased, but not near the required amount.
Meanwhile, richer nations often have an abundance of shots, and many now offer boosters – something WHO has advised against, because each booster is basically a dose that does not go to anyone who has never even gotten their first shot. Despite the UN health agency’s call for countries to declare a moratorium on booster shots until the end of the year, more than 60 countries are now administering them.
“What it highlights are the continuing and fundamental risks for anyone involved in not seriously addressing the inequalities that are still at play globally in the fight against disease and ill health,” said Dr. Osman Dar, Director of the One Health Project at Chatham House Think tank.
Anna Marriott, head of health policy at Oxfam, said COVAX was limited from the start after being pushed to the back of the vaccine queue by rich countries.
“The COVAX team may deliver as fast as they can, but they can not deliver vaccines they do not have,” Marriott said.
Only 13% of the vaccines COVAX has agreed on, and 12% of the promised donations have actually been delivered, according to calculations by the International Monetary Fund from mid-November. About a third of the vaccines dispensed by COVAX, according to the vaccine alliance known as Gavi, have been donations, and the initiative is now partly a clearing house for the donated doses, the very situation it was created to avoid.
Last week, COVAX issued a press release praising the European Union’s promise to send 100 million vaccines to Africa by the end of the year – but only 1/20 of that amount was actually on planes.
Asked about the logistical challenges of distributing the other 94 million doses in just six weeks, Aurelia Nguyen, CEO of COVAX, maintained that arrangements “are in place to move a large number of doses between now and the end of the year.”
In a statement, she said the problem was to ensure that “conditions are right on the ground for doses to be administered.”
In a report released ahead of a meeting this week, Gavi was concerned that the perception that rich countries are dumping older or smaller vaccines on poor countries could undermine the whole project. On Monday, it warned in a joint statement with, among others, the WHO and the African Union that “the majority of donations to date have been ad hoc, given at short notice and short shelf life.”
Rage over dose dumping is already very real. In Malawi and South Sudan, tens of thousands of obsolete doses were destroyed.
But it is not just getting the vaccines into poorer countries that is a problem, some experts believe. COVAX “falls short of getting vaccines from (airport) asphalt in people’s arms,” said Dr. Angela Wakhweya, Senior Director of Gender Equality and Health at CARE.
Authorities in Congo, for example, returned their entire COVAX shipment this summer when they realized they would not be able to administer doses before they expired.
In a “risk management” report on COVAX, Gavi warned that “poor absorption” of vaccines in developing countries could lead to “waste” of some doses. One problem is logistics – just getting the doses in the right country at the right time. But just as important is the ability of often underfunded national health systems to distribute the shots where they are most needed, along with syringes and other necessary equipment. A third problem is persuading sometimes hesitant people to get the vaccines.
However, the director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has denied distribution is a problem and says the only obstacle to immunization in poor countries is supply.
Most COVAX doses distributed so far have been AstraZeneca’s vaccine, a shot that has not yet been approved in the US and whose erroneous rollout in Europe helped boost the anti-vaccine mood when the vaccine was linked. with rare blood clots. The vaccines most commonly used in the United States and large parts of Europe – manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna – have only been available in small quantities via COVAX.
The United States, which blocked vaccine sales abroad and exports of key ingredients for months, has donated 275 million doses in total, more than any other country, but still less than a third of what the Biden administration promised. The European Union, which has generally allowed vaccines produced in the block to be sold anywhere in the world, has in fact delivered about a third of its 400 million promised doses.
Efforts to increase global production beyond a select group of manufacturers have stalled, much to the chagrin of many activists and scientists, as opposed to pharmaceutical companies’ relinquishment of intellectual property rights to the highly lucrative vaccines.
COVAX’s failure to deliver close enough vaccines has led some to wonder if it’s worth fighting for the shots, given that the pandemic has so far not destroyed Africa, as many had initially feared – and has often been the worst in richer nations. It is a strategy that few public health officials will support.
“I think what Africa could do to really shame the world is to stop asking for vaccines,” said Christian Happi, a Nigerian virologist who sat on the CEPI Scientific Advisory Committee. “The vaccines have not arrived, and yet it may turn out that we do not need them as much as the West.”
Hinnant reported from Paris. Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed from Washington.
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