Elsa Sc S describes an encouraging situati
COVID-19 pandemic has affected humanity for quite a long time and it has seriously harmed the people globally. Never before did the global population wait desperately for an antidote that took more than a year to arrive. Even after the development of COVID vaccine, the world was confronted by distribution arrangements as rich countries hogged most of the supplies neglecting the developing world causing deep resentment among the affected populations. Doubts were also raised about the efficacy of the vaccines as the virus kept on mutating. The end result was that along with one dose of the vaccine boosters were required further complicating the supply issues. For many months it was unclear how the supply-demand deficiencies would be ironed out and whether there would come a point whereby such difficulties were finally overcome.
Now it has emerged that the global project to share COVID-19 vaccines is struggling to place more than 300 million doses amidst emerging signs that the problem with vaccinating the world is now more about demand than supply. It is just the reverse as last year, wealthy nations snapped most of the available shots to inoculate their own citizens first, meaning less than a third of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated so far compared with more than 70% in richer nations. However, as supply and donations have ramped up, the developing world is still facing hurdles such as gaps in cold-chain shortage, vaccine hesitancy and a lack of money to support distribution networks.
In January, COVAX, the global vaccine programme run by Gavi and the World Health Organisation had 436 million vaccines to allocate to countries but low-income nations only asked for 100 million doses for distribution by the end of May – the first time in 14 allocation rounds that supply has outstripped demand. It was reported that COVAX was now in a situation where there was enough current supply to meet demand but acknowledged that the roll-out of vaccines was an issue in several less developed nations. It was pointed out that the vaccine gap could only be closed once for all if countries roll out vaccines rapidly and at scale as vaccines that are not assigned by COVAX in this round can be allocated again later. The fear is that slow roll-out of vaccines may enable the virus to mutate again.
The low demand for vaccines in the January allocation is partly explained by recent increases in supplies. COVAX has already assigned tens of millions of doses to be delivered in the first quarter and delivered its billionth dose in January. Officials involved in vaccine distribution said that meant countries were reluctant to take on more doses that they would not be able to use. There had been hopes that African countries would be able to administer billions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines given their experience in dealing with deadly diseases from Ebola to malaria. But two years into the crisis, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in January on the equipment needed to ramp up vaccine distribution highlighted some of the challenges.
Actually, it found critical gaps across 44 of the African Union’s 55 member states: 24 countries said they needed fridges, 18 were in need of deep freezers, 22 required walk-in freezers and 16 did not have sufficient walk-in cold rooms. A UNICEF spokesperson said more than 800 ultra-cold chain freezers had already been delivered to nearly 70 countries, as well as 52,000 fridges. It is mentioned that in this context UNICEF is asking countries to help identify close cold chain capacity gaps as supply increases and governments adjust national-level vaccination targets in response.
The problem is particularly acute for COVAX because the Pfizer-BioNTech shot that needs to be kept super-cold has replaced AstraZeneca’s vaccine as the main one being offered by the global programme. Some African countries, such as Burundi and Guinea, have gaps at every point in the cold chain, from national level to local distribution centres. The findings are likely to underscore growing concerns that COVAX did not invest quickly enough in infrastructure and equipment for countries it was delivering vaccines to. The issue is exacerbated by a lack of funding and because countries have not had enough notice of deliveries – particularly donations – making it harder for them to plan vaccination campaigns.
However, a new worry has cropped-up and that is that money has also started to dry up for global initiatives as richer nations seek to move on from COVID. Gavi says it has only raised $195 million out of the $5.2 billion it has asked for this quarter. The money is used to procure and ship vaccines, as well as provide syringes and delivery support in countries. Efforts to distribute tests and therapeutics, such as the new anti-virals, are facing similar cash-flow issues. TW
Elsa Sc S is doing her graduation from LUMS & a keen researcher