Ensure Covid-19 vaccine equity: Covax struggling, rich nations must support it

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August 09, 2021 5:20 AM

Some countries have donated vaccine doses to the programme, but this is nowhere near enough for the programme to meaningfully deliver on its commitments.

Some countries have donated vaccine doses to the programme, but this is nowhere near enough for the programme to meaningfully deliver on its commitments.

Vaccine inequity—variants capable of ‘breaking through’ notwithstanding—will prolong the Covid-19 pandemic. The mantra that the developed world needs to chant while it zealously vaccinates its own is “no one is safe till everyone is safe”. At present, though, vaccination cover is wildly skewed in favour of the developed nations. As per Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, the richest nations/blocs are vaccinating 30 times faster than the poorest nations. The poorest 50 countries in the world account for nearly a fifth of the global population, but have just 2.8% of the vaccinations. Thus, while, at the current global rate of daily vaccinations, it will take six months to cover 75% of the planet’s population, the actual picture may be far less rosy, with some of the sub-Saharan countries expected to take years to cover such proportions. And, for meaningfully countering the pandemic, there has to be massive vaccination cover across nations. Low coverage carries a two-fold risk: higher chances of emergence of new variants (especially among immunocompromised individuals), and vaccines rendered infective from emergence of variants with higher immune-escape. This, in turn, will mean rich nations fighting infection-waves again.

The need, therefore, is to strengthen the WHO-Gavi-CEPI-led Covax vaccination programme. The programme seeks to provide vaccine access to 92 low- and middle-income nations. Against this backdrop, the Covax initiative sputtering mid-way should be cause for concern for all nations. While it was supposed to have distributed well over 600 million doses—of the 2 billion it aims to supply—by mid-August, it has only recently been able to distribute close to 200 million doses. Against a budget requirement of over $11 billion for 2021-22, it has received pledges of $9.825 billion so far; given most wealthy nations have already announced their contributions, meeting the requirement will need them to revise their donations/pledges upwards.

Some countries have donated vaccine doses to the programme, but this is nowhere near enough for the programme to meaningfully deliver on its commitments. As per a New York Times report published last week, this has had its own fallout. For instance, while the mammoth US donation—estimated to be worth $3.5 billion—is noteworthy, it has come at the cost of US aid that would have helped poor nations deliver the donated vaccines to their recipients through drives; the aid is being diverted instead to the vaccine purchases. Meanwhile, Covax has struggled to make good such gaps of funding for vaccine-delivery in many countries; as a result, vaccines have even gone to waste in many poor nations. In early July, NYT reports, Covax documents show that 22 nations supported almost entirely by the programme had exhausted their entire stock of vaccines. The supply-constriction caused by rich nations buying the bulk of vaccines produced through early deals has been worsened by the pledged amounts to Covax flowing feebly. The strongest argument for vaccine equity—apart from the obvious global health and humanitarian ones—is that expanding vaccine cover can stave off serious economic loss, and not just in poor nations. Rich nations must, therefore, ensure Covax doesn’t fail.

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