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COVID vaccines: Widening inequality and millions vulnerable

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Health leaders agree that a world without COVID-19 will not be possible until everyone has equal access to vaccines. More than 4.6 million people have died from the virus since it swept across the globe from the beginning of 2020, but it’s expected that the rate of people dying will slow if more people are vaccinated. 

Developed countries are far more likely to vaccinate their citizens, which risks prolonging the pandemic, and widening global inequality. Ahead of a dialogue at the UN on Monday between senior United Nations officials UN News explains the importance of vaccine equity.

What is vaccine equity?

Quite simply, it means that all people, wherever they are in the world, should have equal access to a vaccine which offers protection against the COVID-19 infection.

WHO has set a global target of 70 per cent of the population of all countries to be vaccinated by mid-2022, but to reach this goal a more equitable access to vaccines will be needed.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) said vaccine equity was “not rocket science, nor charity. It is smart public health and in everyone’s best interest.”

Why is it so important?

Apart from the ethical argument that no country or citizen is more deserving of another, no matter how rich or poor, an infectious disease like COVID-19 will remain a threat globally, as long as it exists anywhere in the world.

Inequitable vaccine distribution is not only leaving millions or billions of people vulnerable to the deadly virus, it is also allowing even more deadly variants to emerge and spread across the globe.

Moreover, an unequal distribution of vaccines will deepen inequality and exaggerate the gap between rich and poor and will reverse decades of hard-won progress on human development.

According to the UN, vaccine inequity will have a lasting impact on socio-economic recovery in low and lower-middle income countries and set back progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the UNDP, eight out of ten people pushed into poverty directly by the pandemic are projected to live in the world’s poorest countries in 2030.

Estimates also suggest that the economic impacts of COVID-19 may last until 2024 in low-income countries, while high-income countries could reach pre-COVID-19 per capita GDP growth rates by the end of this year.

Is it working?

Not according to Dr Tedros, who said in April this year that “vaccine equity is the challenge of our time…and we are failing”.

Research suggests that enough vaccines will be produced in 2021 to cover 70 per cent of the global population of 7.8 billion. However, most vaccines are being reserved for wealthy countries, while other vaccine-producing countries are restricting the export of doses so they can ensure that their own citizens get vaccinated first, an approach which has been dubbed “vaccine nationalism”. The decision by some nations to give already inoculated citizens a booster vaccine, rather than prioritizing doses for unvaccinated people in poorer countries has been highlighted as one example of this trend.

 Still, the good news, according to WHO data, is that as of September 15, more than 5.5 billion doses have been administered worldwide, although given that most of the available vaccines require two shots, the number of people who are protected is much lower.

Which countries are getting the vaccines right now?

Put simply, the rich countries are getting the majority of vaccines, with many poorer countries struggling to vaccinate even a small number of citizens.

According to the Global Dashboard for Vaccine Equity  (established by UNDP, WHO and Oxford University) as of September 15, just 3.07 per cent of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated with at least one dose, compared to 60.18 per cent in high-income countries.

The vaccination rate in the UK of people who have received at least one vaccine dose is around 70.92 per cent while the US is currently at 65.2 per cent. Other high-income and middle-income countries are not doing so well; New Zealand has vaccinated just 31.97 per cent of its relatively small population of around five million, although Brazil, is now at 63.31 per cent.

However, the stats in some of the poorest countries in the world make for grim reading. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo just 0.09 per cent of the population have received one dose; in Papua New Guinea and Venezuela, the rate is 1.15 per cent and 20.45 per cent respectively.

What’s the cost of a vaccine?

Data from UNICEF show that the average cost of a COVID-19 vaccine is $2 to $37 (there are 24 vaccines which have been approved by at least one national regulatory authority) and the estimated distribution cost per person is $3.70. This represents a significant financial burden for low-income countries, where, according to UNDP, the average annual per capita health expenditure amounts to $41.

The vaccine equity dashboard shows that, without immediate global financial support, low-income countries would have to increase their healthcare spending by between 30 and 60 per cent to meet the target of vaccinating 70 per cent of their citizens.

What has the UN been doing to promote a more equitable access to vaccines?

WHO and UNICEF have worked with other organizations to establish and manage the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility, known as COVAX. Launched in April 2020, WHO called it a “ground-breaking global collaboration to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines”.

Its aim is to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world based on need and not purchasing power.

Currently, COVAX numbers 141 participants according to the UN-supported Gavi alliance, but it’s not the only way that countries can access vaccines as they can also make bilateral deals with manufacturers.

Will equal access to vaccines bring an end to the pandemic?

It’s a crucial step, obviously, and in many richer countries, life is getting back to some sort of normality for many people, even if some pandemic protocols are still in place. The situation in less developed countries is more challenging. While the delivery of vaccines, provided under the COVAX Facility, is being welcomed across the world, weak health systems, including shortages of health workers are contributing to mounting access and distribution challenges on the ground.

And equity issues don’t disappear once vaccines are physically delivered in country; in some nations, both rich and poor, inequities in distribution may still persist.

It’s also worth remembering that the imperative of providing equal access to health care is, of course, not a new issue, but central to the Sustainable Development Goals and more precisely, SDG 3 on good health and well-being, which calls for achieving universal health coverage and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all.

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Health & Wellness

UN-backed COVAX mechanism delivers its 1 billionth COVID-19 vaccine dose

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photo © UNICEF/Aimable Twiringiyima

With a 1.1 million jab delivery in Rwanda this weekend, the World Health Organization’s multilateral initiative to provide equal access to vaccines for all reached the one billion milestone.

Along with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the Vaccine Alliance GAVI, and partners, WHO has led the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history with deliveries to 144 countries to date.

According to a press release published on Sunday, as of 13 January 2022, out of 194 countries members of WHO, 36 have vaccinated less than 10% of their population, and 88 less than 40%.

COVAX’s ambition was compromised by hoarding/stockpiling in rich countries, catastrophic outbreaks leading to borders and supply being locked. And a lack of sharing of licenses, technology, and know-how by pharmaceutical companies meant manufacturing capacity went unused”, the agency explained.

On 24 February 2021, Ghana became the first country in the world to receive vaccines through COVAX when 600,000 doses of the Oxford–AstraZeneca vaccine were delivered to Accra. 

The work that remains

COVAX is currently working with governments, manufacturers and partners to ensure that when countries receive vaccines, they can get them to people quickly.

“The work that has gone into this (1 billion) milestone is only a reminder of the work that remains”, the UN’s health agency underscored.

They added that with updated vaccines in the pipeline, citizens should demand that governments and pharmaceutical companies share health tools globally and “bring an end to the death and destruction cycles of this pandemic, limit new variants and drive a global economic recovery”.

COVAX is one of three pillars of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which was launched by WHO in April 2020 in response to the pandemic.

The ACT Accelerator is a ground-breaking global collaboration to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. 

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WHO recommends two new drugs to treat patients with COVID-19 

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Around two million doses of Sotrovimab are being produced globally in the first half of 2022. © GlaxoSmithKline

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday reccommended two new drugs to treat patients with COVID-19, one for patients with critical disease, and another deemed effective for non-severe cases.

The first drug, baricitinib, is a Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitor- a class of drugs used to treat autoimmune conditions, blood and bone marrow cancers, and rheumatoid arthritis.

According to the WHO Guideline Development Group, it is “strongly recommended” for patients with severe or critical disease in combination with corticosteroids.

The group of international experts based their recommendation on “moderate certainty evidence” that it improves survival and reduces the need for ventilation.

There was no observed increase in adverse effects.

The experts note that it has a similar effectas other arthritis drugs called interleukin-6 (IL-6) inhibitors. Because of that, when both drugs are available, they suggest choosing the best option based on cost, availability, and clinician experience.

It is not recommended to use both drugs at the same time.

The experts also advise against the use of two other JAK inhibitors (ruxolitinib and tofacitinib) for patients with severe or critical cases of COVID-19 infection.

According to them, trials undergone using these drugs failed to show any benefits arising using either drug,and suggested a possible increase in serious side effects with tofacitinib.

Non-severe cases

In the same update, WHO makes a conditional recommendation for the use of a monoclonal antibody known as sotrovimab in patients with non-severe cases.

According to them, the drug should only be administered to patients at the highest risk of hospitalisation. In those at lower risk, it onlyshowed “trivial benefits”. 

A similar recommendation has been madepreviously, for another monoclonal antibody drug, casirivimab-imdevimab, and the experts say there is insufficient data to recommend one over the other.

For both, the effectiveness against new variants, like Omicron, is still uncertain. 

The group will update their guidelines for monoclonal antibodies when more data becomes available.

Recommendations

These recommendations are based on new evidence from seven trials involving over 4,000 patients with non-severe, severe, and critical infections.

Developed by WHO with the methodological support of MAGIC Evidence Ecosystem Foundation, the guidelinesprovide trustworthy guidance and help doctors make better decisions with their patients.

According to the agency, the guidelines are useful in fast moving research areas, because they allow researchers to update evidence summaries as new information becomes available.

The latest guidance also updates recommendations for the use of interleukin-6 receptor blockers and systemic corticosteroids for patients with severe or critical COVID-19; conditional recommendations for the use of casirivimab-imdevimab (another monoclonal antibody treatment) in selected patients; and against the use of convalescent plasma, ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, regardless of disease severity.

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Omicron fuels record weekly COVID-19 cases, but deaths ‘stable’

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Fuelled by Omicron, more than 15 million new cases of COVID-19 were reported around the world last week, by far the most cases reported in a single seven day period, the World Health Organization (WHO) informed on Wednesday. 

Briefing reporters in Geneva, the UN health agency chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the “huge spike” is being driven by the Omicron variant, which is rapidly replacing Delta in almost all countries. 

Despite the number of cases, the weekly reported deaths have “remained stable” since October last year, Tedros added, at an average of 48,000. The number of patients being hospitalized is also increasing in most countries, but it is not at the level seen in previous waves.

He told reporters this is possibly due to the reduced severity of Omicron, and widespread immunity from vaccination or previous infection.

‘50 thousand deaths too many’

For the WHO chief, while Omicron causes less severe disease than Delta, it remains a dangerous virus, particularly for those who are unvaccinated.

Almost 50 thousand deaths a week is 50 thousand deaths too many”, Tedros said. “Learning to live with this virus does not mean we can, or should, accept this number of deaths.”

For him, the world cannot “allow this virus a free ride” when so many people around the world remain unvaccinated.

In Africa, for example, more than 85 per cent of people are yet to receive a single dose of vaccine.

“We cannot end the acute phase of the pandemic unless we close this gap”, he said. 

Making progress

Tedros then listed some progress towards reaching the target of vaccinating 70 per cent of the population of every country by the middle of this year. 

In December, COVAX shipped more than double the number of doses it distributed in November. In the coming days, the initiative should ship its one billionth vaccine dose. 

Some of the supply constraints from last year are also starting to ease, Tedros said, but there’s still have a long way to go. 

So far, 90 countries have still not reached the 40 per cent target, and 36 of those countries have vaccinated less than 10 per cent of their populations.

New vaccines

Tedros also highlighted an interim statement from the WHO Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 Vaccine Composition, released on Tuesday, stressing that further vaccines are needed that have a greater impact on preventing infection. 

Until such vaccines are developed, the experts explained, the composition of current vaccines may need to be updated. 

The Group also said that a vaccination strategy based on repeated booster doses is “unlikely to be sustainable.”

A heavy toll

According to Tedros, the overwhelming majority of people admitted to hospitals around the world are unvaccinated.

At the same time, while the immunizations remain very effective at preventing severe disease and death, they do not fully prevent transmission.

“More transmission means more hospitalizations, more deaths, more people off work, including teachers and health workers, and more risk of another variant emerging that is even more transmissible and more deadly than Omicron”, Tedros explained. 

The sheer number of cases also means more pressure on already overburdened and exhausted health workers.

A study published last year showed that more than one in four health workers have experienced mental health issues during the pandemic. Data from several countries also show that many have considered leaving or have left their jobs.

Pregnant women

On Tuesday, WHO hosted a global webinar, attended by clinicians from around the world, on the clinical management of the virus during pregnancy, childbirth and the early postnatal period. 

As stated earlier in the pandemic, pregnant women are not at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, but if they are infected, they are at higher risk for severe disease.

That’s why it’s vital that pregnant women in all countries have access to vaccines to protect their own lives, and those of their babies”, Tedros said. 

The agency chief also called for pregnant women to be included in clinical trials for new treatments and vaccines. 

He also stressed that, fortunately, mother to baby transmission in utero or during birth is very rare, and no active virus has been identified in breast milk. 

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