By Sharon Atieno

The emergence of COVID-19 vaccines has brought relief in the fight against the pandemic, however equitable access of these vaccines is proving to be challenging as countries prioritize nationalism in drugs acquisition.

In a recent address to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Executive Board, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO chief cautioned countries and manufacturers against a “me-first approach” in accessing the lifesaving treatments.

He reported that while 39 million doses have been administered in nearly 50 richer countries, only 25 have been given in one lowest income nation.

Data from the Duke Global Health Innovation Centre, reveals that over 7 billion vaccine have been purchased to date, with 4.2 billion doses being by high income countries; over one billion doses by upper middle-income countries, 375 million doses by lower-middle income countries and over one billion by COVAX, the global mechanism to purchase COVID-19 vaccines to ensure equitable access.

Credits: Duke Global Health Innovation Centre

Speaking during a webinar Andrea Taylor, Lead researcher for the Launch and Scale project’s COVID-19 workstream at Duke Global Health Innovation Centre, noted that higher income countries leveraged their large purchasing power and investments in the vaccine development to get to the front of the queue for purchases.

She added that some countries have purchased even more vaccines than their populations need. Canada, for instance, has purchased enough to vaccinate five times its population. Other countries include the European Union, the United States of America, New Zealand and Australia among others.

Also, many middle income countries are also not at 100% coverage for their populations, Taylor notes. Thus there are significant gaps when looking at the vaccine coverage.

“In the context of limited manufacturing capacity globally, the advance market commitments made by high income countries early on and are still being made, while they make sense from the perspective of individual countries, they are also taking manufacturing slots off the market and leaving fewer available for middle-income countries and low income countries that are now trying to make purchases and finding they are fewer purchases to be made and the ones that they are making, the vaccines won’t be available for delivery until much later,” she said.

With regards to COVAX, Taylor remarked that health and economic outcomes globally are better if “we can vaccinate populations equitably across the globe, so every population in every country at the same time on the same time scale. It leads to better outcomes for all countries regardless of whether they are wealthy or poor.”

Speaking during the same webinar, Dr. Ogwell Ouma, Deputy Director at the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) noted that equitable access to vaccines was important as virus do not respect borders.

“Vaccination is going to be an important tool in bringing back normalcy, there is no option but equitable distribution of vaccines, if we don’t do that the virus will never go away,” he warned.

So far, the African Union has secured 270 billion doses of vaccine. 50 million from Pfizer, 100 million for Astrazeneca and 100 million from Johnson and Johnson while awaiting data from phase three trials, Dr. Ouma said.