The vaccine scramble that risks leaving everyone behind

Joint statement by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore and ICC Secretary General John Denton.

Henrietta H. Fore, John Denton
A hand holding a vial of the covid vaccine
A vial of the COVID-19 vaccine, part of the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines distributed in Ghana. The shipment to Ghana of 600,000 doses of the vaccine represents the beginning of what should be the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history.
02 March 2021

A Joint Statement by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore and ICC Secretary General John Denton.

The first weeks of 2021 have resembled a split-screen moment for many of us: the roll out of proven vaccines sparking hope that the worst of the pandemic could soon be over, while fresh waves of infection and viral mutations raise concerns that a long slog lies ahead.

But spare a thought for those only seeing one side of that picture. As of  22 February,  while vaccination campaigns have started in more than 85 countries, nearly 90 percent of the available doses were administered in just 15 countries that control more than 60% of global GDP – more than 100 countries are yet to administer a single dose to their citizens.

This pattern of distribution is a fundamental challenge to all notions of global solidarity and inclusion. If the initial impacts of the pandemic exposed a divide between rich and poor, inequitable access to vaccines risks creating a deep schism between the developed and developing world.

Vials of the covid-19 vaccine being sorted
The production line of a COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer for the COVAX facility in India. UNICEF is leading in the procurement and delivery of vaccines for 82 low- and lower-middle-income countries.

Studies have shown that the longer the pandemic continues unabated, the more intense its impact on human life, particularly on the most vulnerable in society. Extreme poverty is now rising at an unprecedented rate across the developing world – and the essential services that secure the health, education and protection of children and young people have been upended.

To take just one measure, decades of progress in reducing childhood mortality stand to be reversed in a matter of months should the virus continue to spread unchecked in the developing world. Estimates by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggest that continued disruptions in health services and increases in childhood malnutrition could place over two million children under five at risk of premature death over one year alone.

The scramble to secure initial doses of front-runner vaccines has begun – a sprint that advanced economies were always destined to win.

One might presume these facts present a compelling case to stop advanced economies hoarding vaccines. Yet the moral case for global solidarity in the face of COVID-19 seems to quickly dissolve when there is political pressure at home. And, so, the scramble to secure initial doses of front-runner vaccines has begun – a sprint that advanced economies were always destined to win.

But perhaps it’s time to ask if some governments have set off running the wrong race by framing this discussion in cold economic terms. What chance does any government have of reversing its domestic economic fortunes if the pandemic continues to spread beyond its borders?

The answer, simply put, is none. Independent research recently published by the International Chamber of Commerce shows that the current scarcity of vaccines in the developing world risks costing the global economy $9 trillion this year alone – equivalent to wiping the combined output of Japan and Germany for global GDP at a stroke.

But perhaps the most startling finding of this new research is that half of these losses will be borne by advanced economies – regardless of the speed of their domestic vaccination campaigns – owing to continued supply and demand disruptions in global value chains.

A shoulder receives a Covid vaccine jab.
UNICEF/UN0423198/COVAX/Miléquêm Diarassouba
A person receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. As the global rollout of COVAX vaccines accelerates, the first COVID-19 vaccination campaigns in Africa using COVAX doses began 1 March 2021 in Ghana and Côte D’Ivoire.

In short, no country will be freed from the economic effects of COVID-19 until the spread of the virus is firmly under control throughout the world. To put it another way: the jobs of autoworkers in the United States will not be secure until tire producers in Thailand and consumers in Brazil are also rid of the virus.

The first step to avoid such an act of economic self-harm, is for the world’s richest economies to put sufficient funding on the table to procure vaccines for the world’s poorest. The amounts needed, frankly, are a rounding error when set against the possible domestic economic returns.

But securing vaccines and getting them onto the tarmac won’t be sufficient in getting the job done.

UNICEF has begun the task of transporting supplies to countries around the world and ensuring local health systems are primed to get vaccines to those who need them most. Make no mistake, the task of delivering 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines will be the most extensive, urgent and complex logistical operation in the history of immunization. Acknowledging the significant contributions from governments and private sector to support the ACT Accelerator/COVAX so far, and noting the remaining large funding gap, there is an opportunity to go further – a handful of modest investments from the world’s largest companies would be enough to bridge the estimated funding gap of at least $659 million needed for UNICEF to do its part to support the delivery of all COVID-19 tools and vaccines, country preparedness and roll out in communities.

Governments, businesses, local communities and the humanitarian sector will also need to work hand-in-hand to ensure vaccines reach where they are needed the most. UNICEF and ICC are already working with a range of partners including the Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation to avoid delays in getting vaccine supplies through customs checks at borders. Further innovative partnerships of this kind will be essential if we are to prime logistics channels and ensure the readiness of local health networks to speed roll out.

This may seem like a daunting task but making vaccines universally available is the only way we’ll lift the grip that the novel coronavirus has exerted on all our lives. And it’s a race we can win – provided we stay the right course together.

About the authors:

Henrietta Fore is Executive Director, UNICEF.
John Denton is Secretary General, International Chamber of Commerce. 


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