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‘No way to sugarcoat this’: Vaccine equity still way off, WHO says

Top officials from the World Health Organisation (WHO) urged world leaders on Wednesday to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine distribution globally as low-income countries have so far received just four vaccines per 100 people.

Speaking during a Facebook live Q&A session, Dr Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO”s Health Emergencies Programme, said that while 133 vaccines per 100 people have so far been distributed in high-income countries, just four doses per 100 people have been administered in low-income countries.

“Only one low-income country achieved a 10% vaccination target that we had set at the end of September,” he added. “So really 70% of all the vaccines on the planet have been used in 10 countries.”

About 48% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccines, according to Our World in Data, with 36% now fully vaccinated.

Europe and North America have the highest share of fully inoculated people, at 54% and 50% respectively. Africa has the lowest rate with just 5.2% of the continent’s 1.2 billion population fully protected against the risk of severe disease.

The situation in Africa is “outrageous,” Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 Technical Lead for the WHO, said during the Facebook live.

“This is causing people to die unnecessarily. You know people that are some of the most cherished people in our population and those frontline workers who are caring for and keeping people alive are dying unnecessarily.”

“There’s absolutely no way to sugarcoat this. We shouldn’t. We should be screaming from the rooftop and every single person who has a role to play here, to fight for vaccine equity, should,” she added.

Developed countries have made pledges to donate some of their surpluses through COVAX, a WHO-led initiative to distribute vaccines. G7 countries — Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, the UK, and the US — pledged at a meeting in June to donate 870 million vaccine doses, with the aim of delivering at least half by the end of 2021.

COVAX has shipped 378 million doses to 144 countries worldwide since its first shipment to Ghana in late February — about two months after the vaccines were rolled out in Russia, the UK, the US and the EU. But “it’s not happening fast enough,” Dr Van Kerkhove stressed.

“We need those vaccines shared now. We need countries to be able to purchase those vaccines now, not next year because people are dying now.

“You cannot end the pandemic in one country and protect one country and think that this is over for you. I’m sorry, that’s not how this virus is working, it’s not how the variants are working and its circulation. We cannot just protect only part of the world,” she also said.

More than 4.9 million people have lost their lives to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic — with nearly 60% of the fatalities observed this year, according to WHO data.

Dr Ryan emphasised that COVAX now has “the means to deliver these vaccines efficiently, equitably across the world to those who most need them and I think we can do that and continue to vaccinate people in the developed world.”

“All of this is achievable if we do this in the right sequence with the right ethics and the right public health objectives in mind,” he said, adding: “Sometimes I struggle to understand why we can’t recognise the inherent logic, and the inherent ethics of that argument because it’s the smart thing to do and it’s the right thing to do.”

The WHO had hoped for every country to vaccinate 10% of its population by late September, accelerating to 40% by the end of the year to eventually reach 70% by mid-2022. Fifty-six countries failed to reach the 10% target, the vast majority of them in Africa and the Middle East.

“If we can get to that 40% by the end of the year, if we can get close to that, then we’re really protecting the most vulnerable,” Dr Ryan said.

“We need to vaccinate the right people in every country in terms of the people most at risk and I think we could get there,” he added, citing upcoming G20 meetings and the special session of the World Health Assembly scheduled for late November.

“We have lots of opportunities to create the global momentum that we need,” he said.

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