59% of less-developed countries yet to deliver a coronavirus jab

Alexandra Thompson
·7 min read
Nurse gives mature African American man a vaccination in doctor's office during coronavirus pandemic
Less-developed countries are said to be missing out on coronavirus vaccines. (Stock, Getty Images)

Rich nations are administering one coronavirus vaccine a second, while most of the world's poorest countries are yet to deliver a single dose, research suggests.

The UK government pre-ordered millions of coronavirus jab doses, developed by various pharmaceutical firms, before they were granted regulatory approval.

The World Health Organization's (WHO) Covax programme "aims to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus] vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world", enabling two billion doses to be "fairly distributed by the end of 2021".

While more than 22 million first doses have been administered in the UK, global data suggest at least 47 out of 79 low- and lower-middle income countries (59%) are yet to vaccinate any of their residents.

Read more: One coronavirus jab up to 80% effective at preventing severe disease in elderly

Doses from Covax are due in the coming days, however, the People's Vaccine Alliance warns the amount available means only 3% of people living in less-developed countries will be vaccinated by mid-2021 and at best just one-fifth by the end of the year.

Portrait of young woman with antiviral mask outdoors
Widespread jab deliveries could free people from the constraints of social distancing and face coverings. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

"As injections of hope are being administered at a rate of one a second in rich nations, people in poorer countries are dying from COVID-19 because they lack the basics like oxygen and have little hope of a vaccine," said Anna Marriott, from Oxfam, which is part of the People's Vaccine Alliance.

The alliance drew on information from OurWorldInData, Bloomberg and John Hopkins University.

Read more: J&J's one-dose vaccine 85% effective against severe COVID

The results suggest that of the 79 low and lower-middle income countries classified by the World Bank, at least 47 nations had not vaccinated anyone as of 4 March.

Further OurWorldInData information suggests 1.1 doses were administered in 68 high-income nations per second between 1 January and 2 March.

'People are dying because we cannot agree'

The UK, US and EU are blocking a proposal by more than 100 developing countries to be discussed at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on 10 March, according to the People's Vaccine Alliance.

Led by South Africa and India, the proposal would override "monopolies held by pharmaceutical companies", allowing an "urgently needed scale up in the production of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines to ensure poorer countries get access to the doses they desperately need".

"Rich nations have a chance to stand on the right side of history and support, not block, calls made by developing countries for a temporary waiver of pharmaceutical intellectual property rights to unlock more manufacturing capacity around the world," said Marriott.

Pharmaceutical companies have said they are negotiating contracts and exclusive licensing deals with vaccine producers on a case-by-case basis, in order to protect their intellectual property and "ensure safety".

Critics have argued a deal-by-deal approach means poorer countries may end up paying more.

South Africa, Mexico, Brazil and Uganda paid different amounts per dose for the University of Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine – at a cost that exceeded the price charged to some EU governments, according to The Associated Press.

AstraZeneca has said its price differs according to local production costs and the quantity of doses a country orders.

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The WHO has called for vaccine manufacturers to share their jabs' intellectual property to "dramatically increase the global supply".

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla described the idea of widely sharing these rights as "nonsense" and even "dangerous". Others agree lifting patent protections sends the signal intellectual property is unimportant in any future pandemics.

Pharmaceutical companies have argued more developed countries should instead give vaccines to poorer nations via Covax, to which critics countered export controls can stop jabs leaving territories.

"People are literally dying because we cannot agree on intellectual property rights," Mustaqeem De Gama, a South African diplomat involved in WTO discussions, has said.

Unlike many other drugs, taxpayers' money went into the rapid development of coronavirus vaccines in the face of the pandemic.

"A condition of taking taxpayer money is not treating them as dupes," said Paul Fehlner, the chief legal officer for biotech company Axcella and a supporter of the WHO patent pool board.

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has also said more-developed countries "have a moral responsibility" to ensure vaccines reach all corners of the world.

Watch: Do coronavirus vaccines affect fertility?

The People's Vaccine Alliance has warned African nations face history repeating itself, referencing how millions died in the early 2000s when "pharmaceutical monopolies priced successful treatments for HIV [human immunodeficiency virus]/Aids [acquired immunodeficiency syndrome] out of reach".

Malawi alone saw a 9,500% increase in coronavirus cases after the South African variant spread through the country, killing two cabinet ministers in one day.

"Here in Zimbabwe, I have lost many dear friends, struggling to breathe in their last moments," said Lois Chingandu from Frontline AIDS, part of the People's Vaccine Alliance.

"It is a cruel irony activists who fought tirelessly for free medicines for HIV/AIDS are now being killed by COVID-19 because, yet again, pharma profits are being put ahead of people's lives."

HIV and Aids "monopolies" were eventually overruled, "allowing the mass production of cheap effective treatment".

When it comes to the coronavirus, a similar waiver of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property would "remove legal barriers for more countries and manufacturers to produce the vaccines, protect their people and join the economic recovery ahead".

Protests are set to take place outside pharmaceutical headquarters on 11 March.

"For the rich world, this proposed act of human solidarity to ensure medicines and vaccines get to the whole human family simultaneously is in their own self-interest, not just an act of charity," said Professor Muhammad Yunus, a leader of the People's Vaccine Alliance and Nobel laureate.

"We should act now. There is no going back."

Read more: No evidence coronavirus vaccines affect fertility

Vaccine manufacturers are said to be ready to produce more jabs if allowed access to the technology and intellectual property "held under lock and key by these [pharmaceutical] companies".

Suhaib Siddiqi, former director of chemistry at Moderna, has said a modern factory should be able to produce coronavirus jabs in no more than three to four months.

"In my opinion, the vaccine belongs to the public," he added.

The Associated Press reported finding three factories on three continents whose owners claim they could produce hundreds of millions of coronavirus vaccines on short notice if given the necessary information.

Winnie Byanyima, from UNAIDS – part of the People's Vaccine Alliance, added: "Amid so much personal selflessness, sacrifice and heroism, the People's Vaccine Alliance denounces the hypocrisy, emptiness of human solidarity and myopic self-interest that defeats efforts to control the virus in countries.

"Only a truly global mobilisation of vaccine production to rapidly scale-up the total number of low-cost doses available will get the job done."

Nick Dearden from Global Justice Now agreed, adding: "One year into the global pandemic, it's an outrage vaccine factories are lying idle, unable to produce COVID-19 vaccines because rich countries are prioritising the patents of pharmaceutical companies ahead of the lives of people across the world.

"A global suspension of patents is needed to speed up the production of these vaccines everywhere."

Watch: Can you catch coronavirus twice?