Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) started efforts to promote a standard of fully vaccinating 70 percent of every country’s population against COVID-19 by June 2022. However, with that deadline quickly approaching, it is becoming clear that the world is going to fall short of that ambitious goal. Public health experts now worry that the goal may never be reached, especially in low-income countries, as funding from the United States and other governments and donors starts to slow down. “The reality is that there is a loss of momentum,” said Dr. Isaac Adewole, a former health minister of Nigeria, who now serves as a consultant of the Africa Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. In fact only a few countries out of the world’s 82 poorest countries reached the 70 percent vaccination goal, such as Bangladesh and Nepal.
To show the disparity, it is important to note that around two-thirds of the world’s richest countries have achieved the 70 percent threshold set by WHO. Although concerns about the virus have been easing down and we’re paying less attention to global vaccination, public health experts worry about the implications. For example, a new variant may be spurred due to low vaccination levels, and that may lead to the squandering of global efforts to enter a post-COVID era. “This pandemic is not over yet- far from it- and it’s imperative that countries use the doses available to them to protect as much of their population as possible,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, chief executive of Gavi, the nonprofit that runs the global vaccination effort named Covax.
The stagnation seen in different regions in the world, including some in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, is due to a decrease in the feeling of urgency. Eastern Europe and the Middle East have vaccination rates at a third or less of their population. However, Africa’s vaccination rates are the lowest globally as less than17 percent of people living in Africa have received a primary Covid vaccine. This is not necessarily a supply issue because nearly half of the vaccine doses delivered to Africa have so far gone unused. The numbers are not trending in the right direction either, as the continent is seeing a drop of 35 percent in doses injected compared to February. WHO officials said that this drop may be due to a switch from mass vaccination efforts to smaller-scale campaigns on the continent.
Global health experts say that we have missed the perfect window to vaccinate all countries when fears were highest last year, and people were motivated to get the vaccine. “There was a time when people were very desperate to get vaccinated, but the vaccines were not there. And then they realized that without the vaccination, they didn’t die,” said Dr. Adewole, who has stated his support for countries continuing to pursue the 70 percent target. Even with the little momentum that’s there, a shortfall of funding efforts and resources has led to further hindering vaccination efforts. For example, the United States, which was a major funder for vaccination efforts, lawmakers have taken away $5 billion meant for global pandemic aid from a coronavirus relief package.The Biden administration has said that without these funds, they will be unable to fund vaccine delivery to more than 20 under-vaccinated countries.
On the other hand, some global health experts point to some positive signs that may hint at a continuation of global vaccination efforts. For example, although lower than in February, the rate of Covid vaccinations being administered in Africa is still near a pandemic high, a global Covid summit is being planned for next month and is co-hosted by the White House, and Gavi drew a significant number of funding pledges, securing $4.8 billion in commitments, falling just short of the $5.2 billion goal. WFCF helped send funds to Gavi early in April to increase vaccine accessibility globally.
Although there are still efforts to reach that 70 percent goal, many experts now wonder if that number is a reasonable threshold, since there is such a huge drop in public demand. Reported fatalities in sub-Saharan Africa due to Covid-19 remain comparatively low, barring seriously poor data tracking, and the perception in the region is that the virus does not pose a threat, especially when compared to the other health issues currently plaguing the region. For example, many countries are turning back to putting health risks like HIV as their priority. Fifa Rahman, a civil society representative to a WHO-launched group that coordinates global Covid response said, “There’s a sense of a lot of competing priorities, but that’s a symptom of the momentum being gone. Because when the momentum was there, everyone was like, ‘Where are our vaccines?’”
For example, in rural areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the reported Covid death rate is very low, but there is an uptick in measles cases, which threatens 20 million children. However, the government says it does not have the resources to provide measles vaccinations this year, said Christopher Mambula, a medical manager for Doctors Without Borders in East Africa. In this context, he said that diverting resources to Covid makes little sense. As African governments note that the doses donated to them haven’t been efficiently distributed, interest has been lost in getting more. With that being said, the African Union still has a goal of vaccinating 70 percent of its population by the end of this year, but the Union has not asked for more doses from Johnson & Johnson or Moderna due to the slow use of vaccines already donated.
South African drugmaker Aspen Pharmacare finalized a deal to bottle and market the Johnson & Johnson vaccine across the continent, which was seen as a step toward Africa’s development of a sustainable, independent vaccine production industry. Although Aspen was ready for production, there were no buyers, including the African Union and Covax, said Stepehen Saad, Aspen’s chief executive. The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, halted all production of Covid shots in December of last year due its stockpile growing to 200 million doses. Bharat Biotech, which is another Indian firm that was a major producer of vaccines, also stopped making doses due to low demand. The companies stated that they have no orders since their contracts with the Indian government ended in March.
The slowing down of the rollout is also due to a change of calculus in terms of the ability of the vaccine to stop infections in the face of the Omicron variant and the emergence of other variants. The vaccine regimes that were planned for the developing world were found to offer little protection against the Omicron variant. Because of the low accessibility to vaccinations in sub-Saharan Africa, many were infected with Covid and have gained natural immunity, which studies have shown to work as well as two mRNA doses in preventing infections. Data from WHO shows that two-thirds of Africans have been infected with the virus even before the Omicron wave. In that context, working towards a 70 percent vaccination goal may not make sense. “There’s very little value to it. In fact, we will gain much more by getting to more than 90 percent of people above the age of 50,” said Shabir Madhi, a professor of vaccinology and the dean of faculty of health sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Around two-thirds of South Africans above the age 50 are currently fully vaccinated.