The race to vaccinate


Equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines is in all of our interests, writes Simon Bland, chief executive of the Global Institute for Disease Elimination in Abu Dhabi.

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc across the world. Over the course of the last year, more than 2 million people have died and many more have lost or had their livelihoods disrupted due to the virus. Travel, trade and economic activity has faltered, and our once interconnected world has become deeply dislocated.

But we have also seen breakthroughs. The speed and scale at which both diagnostics and therapeutics for the disease have improved, is significant. Indeed, more diagnostics have been developed for Covid-19 over the last twelve months than for all 20 of the world’s neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in the past hundred years - and vaccines have emerged at an unprecedented rate.

These new, safe and effective vaccines offer us hope of a light at the end of the tunnel. But it is a long tunnel, and we remain a long way from the end of this pandemic.

We are now seeing increased infection rates reported in Africa, where caseloads had previously been low.

More worryingly, new variants have been identified in Denmark, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil, Japan and California, causing fresh concern over transmissibility, virulence and vaccine effectiveness.

Until and unless everyone is safe, no one is really safe. Analysis by the Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy, suggests that leaving low and lower middle-income countries to fend for themselves against Covid-19 will cause significant economic damage. This puts decades of progress at risk and could prolong the pandemic globally.

Numerous studies also demonstrate that a more equitable distribution of vaccines to frontline workers and vulnerable groups will lead to a more rapid path out of the pandemic.

Now, more than ever, we need solidarity, global collaboration, cooperation and coordination. The world needs a bold and coordinated approach to Covid-19.

In a bid to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines, the World Health Organization (WHO), Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) have formed the Covax initiative, the vaccine pillar of the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator.

Covax brings together governments, global health organisations, manufacturers, scientists, private sector, civil society and philanthropy, with the goal of getting Covid-19 vaccines to those in greatest need, whoever they are and wherever they live.

It aims to ensure that at least 20 per cent of the population in each participating country is protected by the end of 2021.

In addition, through the Covax AMC (Advanced Market Commitment) instrument, wealthier countries are paying into a fund to ensure that low and middle-income countries are not excluded from immunization because they cannot afford to buy vaccines at scale.

The Covax AMC builds on Gavi’s two decades of experience delivering lifesaving vaccines to more than half of the world’s population, including in the hardest to reach communities.

The instrument is a critical step to ensuring equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, regardless of a country’s income level – but it requires an urgent investment of $2bn, from sovereign donors, philanthropies and the private sector, by June 2021, to fill the funding gap.

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Healthcare workers in Kuwait queue to receive a Covid-19 vaccine. Photo: Getty Images.

Vaccines for all is the fastest and most effective way to save lives, livelihoods and drive an economic recovery that spans the globe.”

AMCs have been proven to work before. In 2009, the governments of Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Russian Federation, and Norway, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, supported an AMC to accelerate access to the pneumococcal vaccine.

Thanks to this facility, the new vaccine became available to Kenyans just months after their first use in USA and Europe, instead of the typical 10 to 15 years.

I saw the impact of this in Kenya first-hand, and how a financing innovation essentially leapfrogged a decade of development in public health. Today, more than 60 countries are immunizing against the main causes of pneumonia as a result of this innovation.

We need to move just as fast to distribute Covid-19 vaccines. The Covax AMC is not only in our collective self-interest, it is also morally right. The director general of the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned of a catastrophic moral failure if we leave countries behind.

At the time of writing, more than 190 countries have committed to Covax facility, which has just announced an agreement to receive up to 40 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Promisingly, Covax is on track to deliver at least 2 billion doses by the end of 2021. Rollout of the vaccine is expected to begin by the end of February this year, providing some much-needed relief as worldwide case numbers continue to rise.   

In the GCC, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar have all made financial commitments to support Covax, while the United Arab Emirates is supporting efforts by setting itself up as an international vaccine distribution hub through The Hope Consortium initiative.

The announcement from the new Joe Biden administration that the United States will pay into Covax is also a shot in the arm for the scheme, but crucially, we need more countries to sign up if it is to be successful.

At the Global Institute for Disease Elimination (GLIDE) in Abu Dhabi, we are working with partners including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, GAVI, and others, to help ensure that vaccines are rolled out equitably across the Middle East and North Africa.

Philanthropy also has an important role to play in supporting vaccine production and distribution. We are calling on philanthropists to come forward with funding to support efforts for to make vaccines available for all people, in all countries.

Without a doubt, delivering vaccines for all is the fastest and most effective way to save lives, livelihoods and drive an economic recovery that spans the globe. Throughout the last year, whenever there has been a chink in solidarity, the virus has taken advantage.

We have a generational opportunity to end this pandemic and build back in a way that positions health as a foundation for human development, economic vibrancy and national security. 

That recovery cannot take place if half the world is left behind. – PA