Nine out of 10 in poor nations to miss out on inoculation as west buys up Covid vaccines

By Sarah Boseley Health editor

Nine out of 10 people in 70 low-income countries are unlikely to be vaccinated against Covid-19 next year because the majority of the most promising vaccines coming on-stream have been bought up by the west, campaigners have said.

As the first people get vaccinated in the UK, the People’s Vaccine Alliance is warning that the deals done by rich countries’ governments will leave the poor at the mercy of the rampaging virus. Rich countries with 14% of the world’s population have secured 53% of the most promising vaccines.

Canada has bought more doses per head of population than any other – enough to vaccinate each Canadian five times, said the alliance, which includes Amnesty International, Frontline AIDS, Global Justice Now and Oxfam.

“No one should be blocked from getting a life-saving vaccine because of the country they live in or the amount of money in their pocket,” said Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager.

“But unless something changes dramatically, billions of people around the world will not receive a safe and effective vaccine for Covid-19 for years to come.”

Margaret Keenan (left), from the UK became the first patient in the world to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine. The People’s Vaccine Alliance have warned 96% of doses have been bought by the west
Margaret Keenan from the UK became the first patient in the world to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine. The People’s Vaccine Alliance has warned 96% of doses have been bought by the west. Photograph: Jacob King/EPA

Supplies of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, approved in the UK last week, will almost all go to rich countries – 96% of doses have been bought by the west. The Moderna vaccine uses a similar technology, which also is claimed to have 95% efficacy, and is going exclusively to rich countries. The prices of both vaccines are high and access for low-income countries will be complicated by the ultra low temperatures at which they need to be stored.

By contrast, the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, which has 70% efficacy, is stable at normal fridge temperatures and the price has been set deliberately low for global access. The manufacturers have said 64% of doses will go to people in the developing world. The campaigners applaud this commitment, but said one company alone cannot supply the whole world. At most Oxford/AstraZeneca can reach 18% of the world’s population next year.

The alliance has used data from science information and analytics company Airfinity to analyse the global deals with the eight leading vaccine candidates. They found that 67 low and lower middle-income countries risk being left behind as rich countries move towards their escape route from the pandemic. Five of the 67 – Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan and Ukraine – have reported nearly 1.5 million cases between them.

Manufacturers of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine have been praised for making doses affordable for developing countries but campaigners say it will only reach 18% of the world’s population in 2021
Manufacturers of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine have been praised for making doses affordable for developing countries but campaigners say it will only reach 18% of the world’s population in 2021. Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

The campaigners want Covid vaccine manufacturers to share their technology and intellectual property through the World Health Organization Covid-19 Technology Access Pool. That would allow billions more doses to be made at low prices for the developing world. AstraZeneca/Oxford, Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech have received more than $5bn of public funding to develop their vaccines, they said, which means they have a responsibility to act in the global public interest.

“Rich countries have enough doses to vaccinate everyone nearly three times over, whilst poor countries don’t even have enough to reach health workers and people at risk,” said Dr Mohga Kamal Yanni, from the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

“The current system, where pharmaceutical corporations use government funding for research, retain exclusive rights and keep their technology secret to boost profits, could cost many lives.”

Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s head of economic and social justice, said: “The hoarding of vaccines actively undermines global efforts to ensure that everyone, everywhere can be protected from Covid-19. Rich countries have clear human rights obligations not only to refrain from actions that could harm access to vaccines elsewhere, but also to cooperate and provide assistance to countries that need it.”