Vaccine inequality: The problem with the rollout

vaccine inequality

When news that coronavirus vaccines had been approved and would begin to be rolled out came at the start of this year, it was an encouraging sign that life could return to normal soon. The vaccine programme has taken off; however, it has also highlighted the massive global inequalities between wealthy countries and their less developed counterparts. Wealthier countries hold a significantly larger amount of the vaccine supply and have been able to vaccinate thousands, while many poorer countries are yet to receive a single dose. This vaccine inequality not only lays bare the disparities between wealthy and poor countries but it also threatens to prolong the pandemic.

Vaccine inequality 

Recent statistics from Oxfam show that 14% of the world’s population have bought up 53% of all the vaccines so far, with most of these going to wealthy countries, such as the USA, UK, Australia, Israel, and the EU. The findings also showed that wealthier nations, such as the UK, have now bought up enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over by the end of 2021. Similarly, Canada has bought enough to vaccinate its entire population five times over. In contrast, less developed nations are not expected to have widely available vaccines until 2023 with 130 countries still to receive a single dose.

The latest figures from statista show that Israel has currently had the highest level of vaccinations, followed by the UK, the USA, and many EU countries, while less developed nations, such as Ecuador, Myanmar and Lebanon, have the lowest. 

The obvious vaccine inequality between wealthy and poorer countries has received widespread criticism from human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Frontline AIDS, and Global Justice. Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager, said: “No one should be blocked from getting a life-saving vaccine because of the country they live in or the amount of money in their pocket” and warned “unless something changes dramatically, billions of people around the world will not receive a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 for years to come.” Heidi Chow from Global Justice mentioned how  “governments must ensure the pharmaceutical industry puts people’s lives before profits.”

Israel and Palestine

One of the most obvious examples of the disparity between wealthy and poor countries in the roll out of the vaccine can be seen between the bordering countries of Israel and Palestine. Israel, one of the most well-developed and wealthiest countries in the world, currently leads the world in terms of the number of doses per head of population, with more than 74 doses given for every 100 people.

In comparison, Palestinian Authorities, have struggled to get vaccines to their citizens. To date, Palestinians have gotten access to just 10,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik vaccine donated by Moscow, 2,000 of which just arrived in Gaza this past week. After facing widespread criticism from human rights groups, Israel finally sent 5,000 doses in early February to inject health workers.

Palestinians are expected to get most of their vaccines from a  World Health Organization-led partnership called Covax, aimed at helping poorer countries. The organisation has pledged to vaccinate 20% of Palestinians. However, vaccines intended for Covax have not yet gained “emergency use” approval by the WHO, which is a  precondition for distribution to begin. This means Palestinians could be left without adequate vaccines for months. Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of office at WHO Jerusalem, said it could be “ mid-2021” before vaccines on the Covax scheme were available for distribution in Palestine.

Price difference in vaccines for developing nations 

Not only are developing countries unable to access the vaccine, they are also being charged more for vaccines than richer countries. It was recently discovered that countries, such as South Africa and Uganda, are paying twice as much as developing nations, such as the EU, for doses of the vaccine. Currently, South Africa is being charged $5.25 by Astrazeneca per dose, while Uganda is being charged $7.00. As a two dose vaccine together with shipping, the total cost per person in Uganda is $17. In Uganda the average person earns just $2 a day.  In comparison the EU is being charged just $2.16 per dose.

How vaccine inequality could prolong the pandemic

Vaccine inequality is not only morally wrong, but it could also mean prolonging the pandemic for the whole world. A global pandemic can not be fixed by one half of the world being vaccinated, it is a global effort.

Speaking on vaccine inequality Robbie Silverman, a private sector advocacy manager at Oxfam recently stated that this was “not the way to combat a global pandemic”. He pointed out that the International Chamber of Commerce recently forecast $9.2 trillion of global economic losses due to vaccine nationalism in advanced economies which could take up to half of that hit and noted that unvaccinated populations provide fertile ground for new COVID-19 mutations which could be disastrous for everyone. Simply put, Silverman summarised saying ” Coronavirus anywhere is coronavirus everywhere.”

What solutions have been given?

Many believe the solution to this problem would be to suspend intellectual-property rules that stop other producers from urgently manufacturing effective vaccines and the sharing of the technology and recipes that make their production possible. Although the groundwork for this proposal has been laid, it remains halted and so far the intellectual property rules are still in place.

The rollout of the vaccine has laid bare the massive global inequalities between wealthy and poor  nations. Developing nations are facing extreme hardships, they are less able to get access to vaccines while also being charged more for their doses. It is important to note that all of these vaccines have been publicly funded and should be public property with no differences in cost.  The suspension of intellectual-property rules would be a massive step in equalising the vaccine roll out for everyone but until this step is taken, and while vaccine inequalities are still abundant, a prolonged pandemic can not be ruled out.

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About the author

Aoife McDowell

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