The pandemic has undoubtedly left a lasting impact globally. But poorer economies may have suffered more than their wealthier counterparts.
According to research, vaccine equality could have added some US$38 billion to low-income countries’ gross domestic product (GDP) for 2021 if they share the same vaccination rates as high-income countries.
In addition to income opportunity restrictions, the virus has also highlighted the significant health problems most low-income countries face, which have struggled to manage vaccinations and contain active cases, among other vital health management measures.
Getting COVID-19 immunizations continues to be one of the best ways to prevent infections, alongside physical distancing and proper hygiene. With these preventative measures, vaccine inequality seems the most challenging stumbling block that deserves attention.
Unless all residents are protected, it might be challenging for countries to become secure and confident in moving forward. In this article, you’ll learn about vaccine inequality and its importance to COVID-19 management.
What vaccine inequality is
Vaccine inequality refers to the disparity of access to and availability of vaccines between and among countries worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, ‘vaccine inequity is the world’s biggest obstacle to ending this pandemic and recovering from COVID-19.’
There are several reasons for this phenomenon, most notably the lack of budget. Purchasing COVID-19 products requires high costs and hefty logistical costs to prevent these sensitive biological products from spoiling—putting poor economies at a disadvantage.
The WHO recommends that countries share vaccines, eliminate roadblocks to vaccine manufacturing and provide financial support to low-income countries.
Economists also suggest strengthening private and public sector partnerships to help increase manufacturing capacities. Trade agreements may need to be revised to lift or temporarily ease heavy export restrictions to support increased production further. In addition, more substantial commitments must be made to assist low-income countries. For instance, the World Bank has pledged US$ 6 billion mainly to Africa to spend on health infrastructure and capacities related to COVID-19 vaccine management and related activities. Moreover, about 1.3 billion doses will be donated to low- and middle-income nations in 2021 and 2022.
Which countries are suffering from issues
High-income nations like the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) were the first countries to access the COVID-19 vaccine for vaccine trials in May 2020. Other progressive countries, European Union member-nations and Canada, soon followed. Comparatively, vaccine purchases from low-income territories occurred only in January 2021 via the African Union. By this time, other economically-challenged states in other parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America weren’t able to get their hands on vaccines to cover the entire population.
Countries can either purchase or receive donations of the COVID-19 vaccines from the COVAX facility or other donor countries. The COVAX facility is a vaccine procurement mechanism for its 190 member countries and aims to ensure fair access. Unfortunately, the organization suffers from a severe lack of funding and faces fierce competition from progressive nations, which were the first to secure agreements with manufacturers.
According to Duke Global Health Innovation Center data, low-income countries such as Nepal, Tunisia, Bolivia, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, and Uganda, have less than one dose purchase per inhabitant. On the other hand, some countries have procured more doses to cover each resident, such as Canada (11.4), Australia (10.09), the United Kingdom (8.17), New Zealand (7.63), European Union (7.52), Switzerland (7.01), Japan (6.03), and United States (5.56). Most of the countries have donated excess supplies though.
The impact of vaccine issues on global COVID-19 response
According to the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects Report, vaccine inequity continues. Less than 10% of residents have been vaccinated once in low-income nations, whereas 80% of citizens in progressive countries have received the first dose. However, as of May 2022, the first dose figures for poorer economies have increased to almost 18% per WHO and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Global Dashboard for Vaccine Equity.
Estimates also reveal that advanced economies will have most of their populations immunized by 2022. Middle-income countries will have this done by early 2023, while poorer economies will likely wait until 2024.
Unless the majority of the global population has access to vaccines, countries, especially low-income ones, remain vulnerable to the following:
- Delaying global economic recovery: While most economies have slowly rebounded, the global recovery is still threatened if countries fail to address vaccine equity. Political and geographical boundaries may exist, but economic transactions go beyond these restrictions. People need to travel to other nations for business or pleasure, making low-income countries more vulnerable to reinfections. This cycle will continue unless everyone is protected.
- Further exacerbating challenges in the healthcare system: The health system in most low-income economies was already constrained before the pandemic. Now, significant issues in the sector have been highlighted. Most notably, the lack of medical professionals and deficient health infrastructure had been seen. It didn’t help that several healthcare workers became sick or succumbed to the virus. Lack of monitoring and data gathering, such as using data science to address public health concerns, also became apparent with the pandemic.
- Increasing vulnerability to new strains: By nature, the virus evolves and adapts to its environment. Health experts say that mutations must be expected if the coronavirus persists. The Alpha, Delta, and Omicron variants have been dominant at various pandemic stages. Under these main variants, multiple subvariants had been detected. However, not all of them have become widespread. Unless the world gains herd immunity, the population remains vulnerable to new variants, which may or may not be worse than the original strain. Herd immunity is achieved when a significant number of individuals in a certain population have been vaccinated or have recovered from the disease and thus have developed antibodies to protect them from a certain infection.
- Undermining regular immunization programs: While all efforts are focused on increasing COVID-19 immunizations worldwide, the lack of personnel and proper logistical infrastructure has placed traditional immunization programs on the back burner. The COVID-19 vaccines need proper handling and storage, and low-income countries don’t have enough of these to cover all vaccines.
This deficiency has resulted in slight upticks of contagious diseases like measles and pneumonia. Moreover, the pandemic response has taken over the campaign against human papillomavirus or HPV in some areas, according to research published by the CDC.
As if not worrying enough, cases of monkeypox have recently been reported in the United States, Australia, and a few European countries.
Health security and economic recovery are interlinked. Thus, all countries must have equitable and timely access to COVID-19 vaccines. More concrete actions are needed to achieve this goal. Meanwhile, low-income nations must get all the boost to enhance preventative measures such as testing, tracing, and treatment—per standard protocols implemented by progressive nations.
Internally, countries can also improve the health sector environment through proper data collection, sharing, management, and policy reviews to enable faster and more reliable responses to the current and future health crises.
- “Vaccine inequity undermining global economic recovery”, Source: https://www.who.int/news/item/22-07-2021-vaccine-inequity-undermining-global-economic-recovery
- “Tracking COVID-19 Vaccine Purchases Across The Globe”, Source: https://launchandscalefaster.org/covid-19/vaccinepurchases
- “Why global vaccine equity is the prescription for a full recovery”, Source: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2022/02/11/why-global-vaccine-equity-is-the-prescription-for-a-full-recovery
- “Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines for developing countries: An equal shot at recovery”, Source: https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/coronavirus-covid-19-vaccines-for-developing-countries-an-equal-shot-at-recovery-6b0771e6/
- “Global COVID-1 vaccine inequity: The scope, the impact, and the challenges”, Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8279498/