Avoiding COVID-19 complacency
“With 2.8 billion people unvaccinated, the coronavirus still has ample opportunity to circulate and mutate, potentially giving rise to new, more dangerous variants and fresh resurgences.”
By José Manuel Barroso
GENEVA – History has shown that some of the most dangerous periods of pandemics come when life returns to normal too soon. A century ago, a premature “all clear” helped the second wave of Spanish influenza claim far more lives than the first, after a more virulent strain emerged. Today, many G7 and G20 countries are relaxing COVID-19 restrictions and shifting their focus away from pandemic response to pandemic prevention and preparedness (or to other issues entirely). But until every country achieves its national vaccination target, we cannot know whether we are out of the woods.
With 2.8 billion people unvaccinated, the coronavirus still has ample opportunity to circulate and mutate, potentially giving rise to new, more dangerous variants and fresh resurgences. Even in the face of other pressing crises such as the war in Ukraine, COVID-19 must remain a high global priority. The only way to eliminate the uncertainty and put the pandemic behind us is for global leaders to finish the job they started, by helping the dozens of lower-income countries that are still struggling to achieve adequate vaccine coverage.
These countries need help scaling up their vaccine delivery systems and turning doses into actual vaccinations. Now that high-income countries have achieved high coverage rates, the hoarding and bottlenecks that previously hindered global supply have eased. In fact, global vaccine supply is outstripping global demand for the first time. That’s good news for the global vaccination effort, and particularly for low-income countries where less than 15% of people have received their first shot. But it also underscores the challenge of getting doses into the arms of people living in difficult-to-reach, resource-poor environments.
The last mile was always going to be the longest. In what has been the largest, most complex global immunization effort ever, even wealthy countries have struggled with their vaccine rollouts. In lower-income countries, political fragility often compounds the problem of weak health systems.
Yet even with these challenges, 40% of people (on average) in the world’s 92 lower-income countries have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. That is remarkable, and much of it is thanks to COVAX, the global effort to deliver vaccines equitably. COVAX has made available 1.4 billion doses, with nearly 90% going through the Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC) to lower-income countries that would have struggled to get access otherwise. This is extraordinary progress compared to six months ago; but it is still not enough to reduce the risk of future resurgences, let alone end the pandemic.
While many lower-income countries have come far in their immunization efforts, dozens of others are still struggling to administer vaccines fast enough, and to reach those most at risk. That is why we at Gavi are proud to join with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government in hosting the Gavi COVAX AMC Summit in Berlin this week, as part of the German G7 presidency, together with co-hosts Senegalese President Macky Sall and Indonesian President Joko Widodo. There, we will launch a new phase of COVAX to help countries scale up their delivery systems, and to ensure that they receive the right vaccines, in the right volumes, at the right time.
By helping to cover ancillary costs for essential items – such as syringes, transportation, and insurance – this new phase will do more to ensure that donated doses reach more people in the countries that need them. And to address issues such as the risk of further supply shocks or the possible need for variant-specific vaccines, we are launching a new Pandemic Vaccine Pool to protect COVAX’s supply from future disruptions.
Even, or especially, during periods of geopolitical friction, the best solutions often can be found in global public goods that serve everyone’s interest. Fostering their provision requires all countries to work together in a spirit of multilateral cooperation, even if they remain at loggerheads on other issues. Vaccinating the world remains the only way to end the pandemic and the uncertainty that comes with it. But this effort can succeed only with the support of wealthy countries.
Political leaders are increasingly focusing on the need to strengthen preparedness for future pandemics. They are right to do so. But to demonstrate their resolve, they must commit the funds needed to prepare for whatever else the current pandemic may throw at us.
*José Manuel Barroso, a former president of the European Commission (2004-14) and prime minister of Portugal (2002-04), is Chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.