Rich countries are stockpiling coronavirus vaccines and poor nations are lagging behind

Almost 200 countries have signed up to the global initiative ensuring poorer countries have access to vaccines. But vaccine nationalism has been gaining traction as nations race to protect their citizens first.

Richer nations are scrambling to stockpile coronavirus vaccines as poorer nations struggle to secure supplies.

Richer nations are scrambling to stockpile coronavirus vaccines as poorer nations struggle to secure supplies. Source: SBS News.

Millions of coronavirus vaccinations have already been administered globally as countries race to fortify themselves against the global pandemic. 

But as the scramble to secure vaccines intensifies, there are fears that poorer countries will miss out as richer nations stockpile crucial supplies. 

For two months, the US-based Duke University Global Health Innovation Centre has been keeping track of which countries are buying vaccines and comparing these figures with where disease burden is the greatest.

The centre's research shows that, of the 7 billion doses bought world wide, more than 4 billion have been snapped up by high-income countries.

A woman opens her mouth for a heath worker to collect a sample for coronavirus testing in South Africa.
Source: AP

In stark comparison, low-income nations have secured just 270 million doses.

The global COVAX initiative, which uses pooled funding to buy vaccines for poorer countries, has purchased 1.07 billion doses. 

In other words, rich countries which account for around just 14 per cent of the world's population have secured 53 per cent of doses for the most promising vaccines.

"All the data would show you that equitable distribution of vaccines line up with best results from a health, economic and humanitarian perspectives but it really goes against what many countries are starting to do and what their populations are demanding which is trying to get as many vaccines for themselves as quickly as possible," said Krishna Udayakumar, the founding director of Duke's Global Health Innovation Centre. 

Canada has ordered the most vaccines (362 million) relative to its population, enough to jab each Canadian five times.

New Zealand has ordered enough (18.32 million) to vaccinate its people three times, but it plans to give free doses to neighbouring Pacific Island nations.

The US will have enough doses (1.2 billion) to vaccinate their population twice over.

Australia has enough (114.8 million) to give citizens at least four doses each.

Meanwhile the African Union has ordered less than half of what's needed to reach herd immunity - or just 670 million doses.

Latin American countries - excluding Brazil - only have 150 million doses, which would supply one jab each for less than half the population. 

"Demand has greatly outstripped supply so in a scenario like that you will generally find the powerful and most richest countries getting to the front of the queue quickest," said global health researcher Michael Head.

Another issue is that vaccines aren't going to countries where the infection rate is highest.

For example - Japan, Australia and Canada have reserved 1.03 billion doses, but the three countries combined account for less than 1 per cent of all current COVID-19 cases.

"It does look like low and middle income countries are going to be waiting 2, 3, 4 years to reach herd immunity through vaccination," Dr Udayakumar said.

He predicts the next test of global equity that will emerge over the coming months is how quickly richer nations will donate excess doses to poorer nations.

"Norway is the only country that has come out and said they will donate doses in parallel to vaccinating their own populations," he said.

"So the question becomes - are high income countries willing to donate to make sure that frontline health workers and vulnerable populations in low and middle income countries actually get access to vaccines before low risk populations like healthy young adults in their own countries do."

While vaccine nationalism appears to be gaining traction around the world, Dr Udayakumar said it's in the interest of every person that vaccine globalism becomes the priority.

"What we're already starting to see with new variants is that they may be less susceptible to our current vaccines so to the extent that the virus continues anywhere in the world it really poses a threat for all of us even those who have vaccinated," he said. 

"Our hope is that by pointing this out as quickly and as repeatedly as we can, we can create more of a semblance of a clear global and coordinated response before we start to see things that look like the wild west of vaccines."

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Published 3 February 2021 at 7:08pm
By Catalina Florez