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Vaccine hoarding by some countries leading to new Covid-19 variants?

Just as we thought that we were out of the woods, the threat of a new Covid-19 variant, Omicron, has started looming large. Let's take a look at the factors that have contributed to the crisis

Coronavirus Vaccine | WHO | Vaccine

Krishna Veera Vanamali & Bhaswar Kumar  |  New Delhi 

The inequality between the rich and poor nations is as stark as the economic disparity between them. While some countries are rushing to give booster shots to its people in the face of the new Covid-19 variant, have not been able to fully vaccinate even their 10 per cent population. They don’t have stock at all.

South African countries, from where the new variant is said to have emerged, have very low vaccination rates. Just 6 per cent of the population in Africa has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Now more than 30 countries have banned travel from southern Africa.

Rich countries continue to hoard vaccines when redistributing them to lower and middle-income countries is the need of the hour. High income countries have administered 120 doses per 100 people, compared to just three doses per 100 people for low income countries.

Even as wealthy countries rushed to expand booster campaigns, are not even able to vaccinate their most at-risk people. The World Health Organisation has now warned against giving Covid-19 booster shots to healthy adults saying that “hard-won gains could vanish in an instant”.

By the end of October, wealthy countries had donated only 10 per cent of the 1.3 billion doses they had pledged to global vaccine-sharing program COVAX.

The global vaccine-sharing program aimed to secure vaccines for about 100 low and middle income economies at the same time as wealthier nations. It has so far shipped 580 million doses against its downwardly revised target of 1.425 billion doses by the end of 21. The reduced supply to COVAX came at the cost of rich countries hoarding vaccines.

Doctors Without Borders estimates that 10 high-income countries including the US, UK, Germany and France would be holding 870 million excess doses by the end of this year even after boosters have been administered for high-risk groups. 241 million doses held just by the European Union and G7 countries could expire if they are not used by the end of 2021.

At the same time, rich nations have also consistently opposed patent waiver on Covid-19 vaccines. The idea which was first proposed by India and South Africa a year ago would have allowed companies in developing countries to freely manufacture cheaper versions of the vaccines.

Despite support from over 100 countries, including the US, the waiver of Intellectual Property related to Covid-19 vaccines is yet to be approved at the World Trade Organisation.

While experts might not strictly link lack of equity alone with the emergence of new variants. It cannot be denied that if indeed Omicron originated in southern Africa, then greater vaccine coverage in that region could have reduced the chances of such a thing happening.

Vaccination is currently the strongest weapon if we have to avoid the emergence of new variants. Experts say that only a significant level of global immunity can limit the spread of new variants as well as reduce the opportunity for them to emerge in the first place. It is high time that rich countries start diverting doses to the developing world as inequitable distribution of vaccines will only prolong the pandemic.

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First Published: Thu, December 02 2021. 08:15 IST