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Unsplash, Our World In Data/The Xylom Illustration

Wealthy Countries: Keep the COVID Vaccines You Definitely Need, Donate the Rest!

The very fact that my severely asthmatic mother in India may receive a COVID-19 vaccine after I would, baffled me for the better part of early 2021.

The confusion remained until April when to my surprise, she received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Others internationally have not been as fortunate. As it turns out, I’m not drowning in this problem alone. Through my many conversations with strangers on the Internet, I realized many international students with parents “back home” have had the same outlook on vaccine equity. We shouldn’t have to have family overseas to care about the inequity we see. This is an issue of global concern.

While most of the world is still awaiting vaccines to inoculate their most clinically vulnerable populations and healthcare workers, developed countries such as the United States and those within the European Union, are vaccinating their entire adult and adolescent populations — including, more recently in the U.S., all healthy individuals over the age of 12. The U.K. has a similar stance and hopes to provide one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to all adults over the age of 18 by the end of July. Low- and middle-income countries are following in these footsteps. Recently, India has made similar changes to its vaccine rollout: anyone over the age of 18 may receive a COVID-19 vaccine in the country. In reality, though, the country has reported a shortage of vaccines multiple times. Regardless, given the distribution of vaccines worldwide, it is clear that developed countries are hoarding available vaccines.

Although vaccination alone is not the answer to ending the pandemic, vaccines are an important step in that direction. As of June 27, 2021, more than 2.92 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered globally. These numbers hide a grave inequity: according to the World Health Organization, “High-income countries have administered almost 44% of the world’s doses. Low-income countries have administered just 0.4%.”

Vaccinating ALL adults (healthy and vulnerable) in countries such as the US, the UK, and the EU, although eventually necessary, will deepen the vaccine inequity that other lower- and middle-income countries are facing. The vaccines may help these nations open up and go back to “normal”, but at the expense of thousands of lives that can be saved through vaccination. We will also continue to see new waves of the pandemic through new variants; a recent example being the delta variant (and the delta plus variant) which is currently preventing the UK from fully opening later this month. The solution to this problem is seemingly simple, but is convoluted by politics: Keep what you will definitely need, donate the rest! As has been highlighted during the G7 summit, it is necessary to vaccinate at least 70% of the world’s population by next year. To achieve this goal, 11 billion doses of vaccines are needed. The leaders of the G7 countries announced new commitments that would bring their collective donations to severely short 1 billion doses over 2021 and 2022.

The solution to this problem is seemingly simple, but is convoluted by politics: Keep what you will definitely need, donate the rest!

In response to growing concerns about vaccine inequity globally, the White House announced, in February 2021, a $4 billion contribution to COVAX, a vaccine-buying initiative aimed at providing equal access to COVID-19 vaccines to all countries across the globe. To date, over 190 countries have signed up. There is no doubt that this money is essential in the global fight against the pandemic: it will allow low- and middle-income countries to buy vaccines. However, at the moment, this is not enough as there is a global shortage of COVID-19 vaccines, which means that even if this money is being made available for Covax to buy vaccines for poorer countries, there are currently limited vaccines available to be bought. A recent article in The Atlantic highlights, “All four Western manufacturers of the vaccines in use — Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca—have been struggling to overcome production problems and meet their commitments to rich countries, leaving their ability to do any more for poor countries, at least this year, in doubt.” Funding for COVAX is no longer the problem; finding immediate access to vaccines that are available to buy is.

Developed countries already bought the majority of what’s available and are continuing to buy what will become available. In April, the United States promised to donate its “surplus” vaccine supply to Covax — this surplus may be whatever is left over after everyone over the age of 16 is vaccinated. The country has since begun to vaccinate children over the age of 12, and (thankfully) is simultaneously making vaccine donations to other low-income countries. This, again, although welcomed, is too little too late - every day that donations were delayed thousands of people lost their loved ones to something that is now preventable. Highly vulnerable individuals continue to require these vaccines NOW before their local infection rates continue to rise. Please note though, that despite the donations and shortages reported worldwide, the U.S. government bought another 200 million doses of the Moderna vaccine earlier this month. These additional doses may be used to inoculate children or to provide additional boosters.

The United States has the opportunity to make prompt decisions based on necessity and fairness and provide these life-saving vaccine doses to people that clearly require them globally — not just in India and Mexico, but everywhere.