Omicron Should Serve As a Wake-Up Call to the Consequences of Vaccine Inequities
Earlier this year, I wrote about equity in the context of the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines around the world. At the time, vaccines were just starting to become available in Kenya, where my family and I live, and in many other low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Just a few weeks later, my husband and I both became sick with COVID-19. We were lucky and were able to manage our symptoms at home, and our two young daughters weathered the storm—never showing signs of illness despite being quarantined with us for almost three weeks.
A few months later, I traveled to Canada where I eventually was vaccinated against COVID-19. The moment that needle entered my arm felt extremely bittersweet. On the one hand, I love science and vaccines, and it felt good to have an extra layer of protection against this virus. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for my privilege.
Fast forward several months and vaccines are becoming increasingly available in many parts of the world. Yet, LMICs are still lagging behind. Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that just five African countries—less than 10% of the continent’s 54 nations—are likely to meet the year-end target of fully vaccinating 40% of their population. In high-income countries, close to 64% of people have been vaccinated with at least one dose, while in low-income countries, that figure drops to around 7.5%. To this day, millions of vulnerable people around the world remain unprotected against this deadly disease, including more than two-thirds of health workers in Africa.
The Omicron variant reflects the threat of prolonged vaccine injustice. The longer we take to deliver #VaccinEquity, the more we allow the #COVID19 virus to circulate, mutate and become potentially more dangerous. pic.twitter.com/tfN5SlBiA5
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) November 28, 2021
Meanwhile, many high-income countries around the world are now widely administering booster doses, while many others have started to offer vaccination to young children.
We all want what’s best for ourselves and for our loved ones. But the emergence of the Omicron variant should serve as a stark reminder that the only way to truly protect ourselves is to ensure that others are protected as well.
In an ideal world, one country’s decisions wouldn’t impact access to vaccines elsewhere. But the reality is that vaccine purchases and, let’s face it, vaccine hoarding, in some countries means fewer vaccines elsewhere. That’s why the WHO and others are still urging countries and companies that control the global supply of vaccines to prioritize supply to COVAX, a worldwide initiative to make access to vaccines more equitable.
This does not need to be a zero-sum game. We can all do our part to stop the spread of this virus by getting ourselves and our loved ones vaccinated when the opportunity arises. But with that privilege should come the responsibility to advocate for our governments to do the right thing, including releasing advanced purchases they will not need, and donating funds, and excess doses, to the COVAX facilities. Last week, for example, Switzerland was the first country to trade places with COVAX in manufacturers’ supply queues. Others should urgently follow suit.
It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such global issues and to feel like we are too small to make an impact. Yet we all have a voice. This is my small attempt at making my voice heard, and my hope is that others will add theirs to the calls for vaccine equity. Here are some ways to get involved:
- Show your support for fair and equal access to vaccines and ask leaders of the world’s richest nations to #DonateDosesNow
- The WHO Foundation has created GoGiveOne, an initiative you can donate people-powered vaccines through. You can get your vaccine and give one to someone who needs it.
And here are some great resources if you’d like to find out more about vaccine equity challenges:
- The Duke Global Health Innovation Center’s Launch and Scale Speedometer has been tracking the procurement and manufacturing flow to better understand global equity challenges.
- The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has a ‘Global Dashboard for Vaccine Equity’ that combines the latest data on the global roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines with the most recent socio-economic information.