A Shocking Statistic Demonstrates Why Global Herd Immunity Is Impossible
In the race against infection, injection has prevailed.
According to public health specialists, nearly 70% of the world’s 7.9 billion people must be properly vaccinated in order to halt the COVID-19 pandemic. As of June 21, 2021, 10.04 percent of the world’s population was fully vaccinated, almost entirely in developed countries.
In low-income countries, only 0.9 percent of the population has gotten at least one dose.
I am a global health scholar with a focus on health care inequity. I investigated what the global vaccination access gap means for the world using a data set on vaccine distribution compiled by the Global Health Innovation Center’s Launch and Scale Speedometer at Duke University in the United States.
A worldwide health emergency
Distribution, not supply, is the primary reason why some countries are able to vaccinate their populations while others have significant disease outbreaks.
Numerous wealthy countries pre-purchased an excess of COVID-19 vaccination shots. My studies show that the United States, for example, procured 1.2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine, or 3.7 doses per person. Canada has ordered 381 million shots; with the two doses required, each Canadian could be vaccinated five times.
By June 2021, countries accounting for less than a sixth of the world’s population had reserved more than half of all vaccines available. This has made it extremely difficult for the other nations to obtain doses, either directly or through COVAX, the worldwide program established to ensure equal access to COVID-19 vaccines for low- to middle-income countries.
Benin, for example, has gotten approximately 203,000 doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine – sufficient to completely immunize 1% of its population. Honduras procured roughly 1.4 million doses, primarily from AstraZeneca. This will completely vaccinate 7% of the population. Even front-line health workers are not yet vaccinated in these “vaccine deserts”
Haiti has received around 461,500 doses of COVID-19 vaccine through donations and is currently battling a major outbreak.
Even COVAX’s stated objective – for lower-income countries to “receive enough doses to vaccinate up to 20 percent of their population” – would not be sufficient to bring COVID-19 transmission under control in those areas.
The price of non-cooperation
Northeastern University researchers modeled two vaccination distribution tactics last year. According to their computer models, 61% of global deaths could have been avoided if countries collaborated to create an equitable global vaccine distribution plan, compared to 33% if high-income countries received vaccines first.
In a nutshell, when countries collaborate, COVID-19 deaths are reduced by almost half.
Vaccine access is inequitable within countries as well – particularly in countries with already high levels of inequality.
In Latin America, for example, a disproportionate share of the tiny minority of vaccinated people are elites: political leaders, economic tycoons, and those with the financial resources to fly abroad to get vaccinated. This contributes to the entrenchment of broader health and socioeconomic disparities.
For the time being, the outcome is two distinct and unequal societies in which only the wealthy are shielded from a lethal sickness that continues to wreak havoc on others who lack access to the vaccination.
A rerun of the AIDS blunders?
This is a well-known story from the period of HIV.
The introduction of efficient antiretroviral medications for HIV/AIDS in the 1990s aided in the survival of millions of people in high-income nations. However, almost 90% of the world’s poorest people living with HIV lacked access to these life-saving treatments.
Concerned about undercutting their markets in high-income nations, pharmaceutical corporations such as Burroughs Wellcome established worldwide consistent prices. Azidothymidine, the first HIV medicine, cost approximately US$8,000 per year – more than $19,000 in today’s terms.
This effectively priced effective HIV/AIDS medications out of reach for people living in impoverished countries — especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa, the heart of the pandemic. By 2000, 22 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa were HIV positive, and AIDS was the leading cause of death in the continent.
The situation surrounding inequitable access to HIV treatment began to dominate international news headlines, and the developed world’s commitment to respond became too enormous to ignore.
“History will surely judge us harshly if we do not respond with all the energy and resources that we can bring to bear in the fight against HIV/AIDS,” South African President Nelson Mandela declared in 2004.
Pharmaceutical corporations began donating antiretrovirals to developing nations and helping local businesses to produce generic versions, enabling highly impacted impoverished countries to obtain them in bulk at a reasonable cost. To support health programs in developing nations, new global institutions such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria were established.
Under pressure from grassroots activity, the US and other high-income countries have also spent billions of dollars on HIV research, development, and distribution abroad.
A shot of international cooperation
After more than a decade of development and millions of pointless deaths, developed countries finally made antiretrovirals universally available.
After 15 months of the current pandemic, wealthier, highly vaccinated countries are beginning to shoulder some of the burden of increasing worldwide vaccination rates.
Recently, the leaders of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Japan promised to provide a total of 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine to developing countries.
It is unknown how their ambition to “vaccinate the world” by the end of 2022 will be achieved, or whether recipient countries will receive enough doses to fully vaccinate enough individuals to prevent viral spread. And the late 2022 deadline will do nothing to help those in the developing world who are dying in historic numbers from COVID-19, from Brazil to India.
The HIV/AIDS crisis demonstrates that stopping the coronavirus pandemic will involve first placing a global political priority on availability to COVID-19 vaccinations. Then, wealthier nations will need to collaborate with other countries to expand their vaccine manufacturing infrastructure globally.
Finally, poorer countries require additional funding to support their public health systems and vaccination purchases. Wealthy countries and organizations such as the G-7 can contribute to this funding.
These initiatives benefit developed countries as well. COVID-19 will continue to spread and mutate as long as the world’s population is unvaccinated. Additional varieties are certain to arise.
“In our interdependent world no one is safe until everyone is safe.” UNICEF stated in a May 2021 statement.
Maria De Jesus is an associate professor and research fellow at the American University School of International Service’s Center on Health, Risk, and Society.
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