Health officials and experts around the world on Thursday welcomed a U.S. plan to donate 500 million more COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries, but the celebrations came with hesitation.
For instance, when exactly will those vaccines reach regions left behind in the global race and that are feeling the bite right now with deadly new waves of virus infections? And how many other wealthy countries will follow the lead of the U.S. to fill the gaping need?
The Biden administration’s promise to purchase and share Pfizer vaccines was “clearly a cause for celebration,” said Dr. John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, particularly at a time when virus infections are aggressively increasing on the continent, and there are still countries that haven’t administered a single dose.
“Absolutely, it’s going to be a big help,” Nkengasong said, although he noted he was eager to understand the exact timeline for the shots hopefully heading to his continent.
Two hundred million doses — enough to fully protect 100 million people — will be provided this year, with the balance donated in the first half of 2022, according to the White House. The U.S. will work with the United Nations-backed COVAX alliance to deliver the shots. Some have noted that since the Pfizer vaccines require extremely cold storage, they present an extra logistical challenge for countries with struggling health systems and poor infrastructure.
U.S. President Joe Biden provided more details during a speech on the eve of the Group of Seven summit in Britain Thursday.
He said the doses would go to nearly 100 low and lower middle-income countries with no strings attached. The first batches will be shipped in August, he said.
“That’s a historic step,” he said, calling it “the largest single purchase and donation of COVID-19 vaccines by any single country ever.”
Inequities in vaccine supplies alarmingly pronounced
That summit might also give a crucial indication of whether and how far other nations in the elite club are willing to follow the U.S on vaccine sharing amid widespread criticism that richer countries have fallen woefully short so far, despite lofty promises of fairness when the vaccines were being developed.
Inequities in vaccine supplies around the world have become alarmingly pronounced in recent months, as richer countries have rushed to vaccinate wide swaths of their populations while poorer nations have struggled to secure doses. The inequality is not just a matter of fairness: there is also increasing concern over newer virus variants emerging from areas with consistently high COVID-19 circulation.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in The Times of London newspaper that it was now time for wealthy countries to “shoulder their responsibilities” and “vaccinate the world,” although his own country has yet to announce any solid plan to share vaccines with countries in need.
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France has been insisting on the importance of helping Africa, in particular, with vaccines since last year, and President Emmanuel Macron said he brought 100,000 vaccine doses with him on a trip to Rwanda last month. Macron has promised France will donate 30 million doses through COVAX by the end of the year, with half a million by mid-June.
Canada has been criticized by some for both not sharing doses and for taking a small amount of the COVAX stock. The Liberal government did double its commitment last week to COVAX in terms of its monetary contribution, to $440 million Cdn, with International Development Minister Karina Gould saying Canada as of yet did not have “excess doses” but would look to share once it did.
Promises by wealthy nations, some of whom have excess vaccines, have often been criticized as too little or too late — or both.
“While Biden’s plan is welcome, it is a small piece of the puzzle, and it doesn’t help countries that are struggling now,” said Fifa Rahman, who is a civil society representative on a World Health Organization body focused on increasing access to COVID-19 vaccines, among other issues.
She cited the East African country of Uganda as an example, saying the its intensive care units are already full, and it has only small numbers of vaccines left.
“This is just one example of a country that needs vaccines now,” Rahman said. “Later this year is too late and comes at the expense of lives.”
There are many examples of dire need across the world, like Haiti, on America’s doorstep, and which still awaits its first shipment of vaccines six months after some rich countries started their programs.
“It’s precisely the actions of the G7 governments, among others, that have led to the grave global inequities we see in access to COVID-19 medical tools now,” the Doctors Without Borders organization said.
As countries around the world struggled to access vaccines, unable to secure their own deals with companies like Pfizer, many have turned to China, which has exported 350 million doses of its vaccines to dozens of countries, according to its Foreign Ministry.
While Chinese vaccines have faced scrutiny because of a lack of transparency in sharing clinical trial data, many countries were eager to receive anything at all.
The shots promised by the Biden administration will go to 92 lower income countries and the African Union. Pfizer said the doses are part of a previous pledge, with its partner BioNTech, to provide two billion doses to developing countries over the next 18 months.
The White House had earlier announced plans to share 80 million doses globally by the end of June, most through COVAX.
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