Vaccine rollouts must not become an excuse for complacency

Successful jabs are only the beginning of the end of Covid-19

FILE - In this April 8, 2021, file photo, a Northwell Health registered nurse fills a syringe with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a pop up vaccination site inside the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center in the Staten Island borough of New York. Fewer Americans are reluctant to get a COVID-19 vaccine than just a few months ago, but questions about side effects and how the shots were tested still hold some back, according to a new poll that highlights the challenges at a pivotal moment in the U.S. vaccination campaign. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
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Almost 18 months into the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has seen a historic mobilisation of science, research and innovation. Multiple vaccines have been developed, approved, produced at scale and distributed across the globe at a pace previously unseen. Initial vaccine rollouts began at the end of 2020, with several countries in the Mena region now benefiting from some of the highest inoculation rates in the world.

The UAE announced last Sunday during VAX LIVE, an event held by the international advocacy organisation Global Citizen, its plans to donate 1 million Sinopharm doses through the Covax Facility, the global mechanism created to ensure that vulnerable populations receive fair access to vaccines. It also pledged to support the delivery of 25m jabs across the world.

While the event mobilised $302m in funding and over 26m vaccine doses overall, a significant gap remains. Low and middle-income countries globally and within the Mena region are being left behind. The EU’s Global Health Summit, set to take place later this month, will serve as a critical moment in determining the next phase of the pandemic response, setting the stage for G20 members, heads of state, global health actors and key representatives from international and regional organisations to make political and financial commitments to those left furthest behind.

The UAE, for example, has reached a remarkable 90 per cent vaccination coverage rate, and has also become a major distribution hub of Covid-19 vaccines, with a special focus on emerging markets where populations have been hit particularly hard. However, even with these efforts, a profound inequity in vaccine availability continues to grow within and between countries. The rapid spread of Covid-19 infections enables the emergence of new and potentially dangerous variants, which threaten the progress achieved in countries with high rates of coverage and are potentially devastating for those countries whose vaccinations campaigns are only just beginning.

Make no mistake, the end is not yet in sight. New infections continue to rise exponentially. The tidal wave of new infections in India must be a stark wake-up call for global action. The combined effects of vaccine nationalism, inequity, hesitancy and complacency will prolong and deepen this global emergency for years to come. Patchy progress is not good enough.

epa09189388 A Pakistani citizen receives a dose of the AstraZeneca's vaccine AZD1222, against Covid-19 during the second phase of Pakistan's coronavirus vaccination drive in Karachi, Pakistan, 10 May 2021. Pakistan's National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) said on 08 May that the country has received its first shipment of Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines through the Covax facility on 08 May. The WHO and several global health funds last year launched the Covax initiative that aims for a fair distribution of vaccines between developed and developing countries.  EPA/REHAN KHAN
The WHO and several global health funds last year launched the Covax initiative, which aims for a fair distribution of vaccines between developed and developing countries. EPA

As we close in on the 18-month mark of the pandemic, all eyes are on vaccine rollouts. The unequal speed of vaccine delivery demonstrates just how much work remains to ensure that everyone has access to life-saving jabs. Crucially, countries must take steps to ensure fair vaccination efforts for vulnerable populations, including refugees and migrant groups across low and middle-income Mena countries. Our collective goal must be to save lives by providing vaccines for frontline health workers and those who are at highest risk of serious illness, followed by the general population.

One critical step is for countries to make stronger financial and political commitments to the Covax Facility, which still needs more financial support and vaccine donations. Currently, it is working to raise $2 billion dollars, enough to purchase and deliver 1.8bn doses to 92 lower income countries and avert up to 800,000 deaths.

With 10 of its nations eligible for the Covax Advance Market Commitment, the Mena region has collectively received over 3m doses and is on track to vaccinate up to 30 per cent of its population by early 2022. While this progress is positive, it is still insufficient.

Leaders must continue to work together to reject vaccine nationalism and prioritise strengthened immunisation efforts to tackle Covid-19. These efforts are in everyone’s interest. The longer the virus circulates, the more variants will threaten to reduce vaccine efficacy.

While targeted advocacy efforts are essential to increasing awareness, raising funds and addressing global structural impediments, vaccine production also needs to be scaled up. This requires a relaxation of intellectual property rights, technology transfer, voluntary licensing and innovative and unified industry solutions. What vaccine stocks are available need to be distributed more equitably, and countries need support to prepare, receive and distribute vaccines through effective immunisation campaigns.

Over 3 million people have died globally. Over 150,000 have died in the Mena region. Tragically, this number will climb even higher. We urgently need to replicate national successes globally. The relatively tranquil waters of those nations making progress are threatened by huge waves elsewhere. Together, there can be an end to the pandemic, but the “each country for itself” approach pushes that end farther out of reach and, in doing so, means millions more could die.

It is a remarkable success that we have the tools to defeat this disease. It is incomprehensible to believe that these tools should not be available to everyone. Until and unless everyone is safe, no one is safe.

Simon Bland is chief executive of the Global Institute for Disease Elimination (GLIDE), a global health institute based in Abu Dhabi