Vaccination gap increases risk of new virus strains

The fact that richer countries claimed the majority of coronavirus vaccines at an early stage has resulted in an enormously unequal distribution of vaccines. As the months go by, that gap with poorer countries is not closing. With all the consequences. “The more virus, the more mutations can occur.”

Making promises by prosperous countries has never been the case. However, the actual delivery of vaccines to poorer countries where there is a major shortage is still disappointing to this day.

Of the nearly 612 million additional doses of vaccine promised to be donated to poorer countries, including the US, France, Germany, the UK, Japan and Canada through the Covax international programme, 37 million doses have been delivered so far, according to the latest World Health Organisation figures.

Covax is designed to vaccinate the population of 92 low-income countries. The goal is to protect at least 20% of those in those countries by the end of the year, especially the most vulnerable and care providers. But that only happens very rarely.

And that’s not good for anyone.

“If we do not vaccinate soon, the coronavirus will continue to roam in those areas,” says microbiologist and Professor Paul Savelkoul of the Maastricht University Medical Center. “As a result, new variants continue to emerge.”

Variants that reach the rest of the world, as we now see with the Delta variant (formerly the Indian variant) and rather the beta variant (South African) and gamma variant (Brazilian).

With the Covax programme, they are impatient to start vaccinating as many people as possible, says Sabine De Jong, coordinator of International Programmes at the Dutch branch of Unicef, which buys and distributes vaccines for Covax.

“We are ready. Now it’s just waiting for the vaccines to come. This is very frustrating and, above all, worrying because we are seeing more and more outbreaks in Africa and South-East Asia, where things are getting out of hand.”

According to her, the fact that most of the vaccines have not yet been delivered is also due to the fact that manufacturers ‘ production is still lagging behind the enormous need. “That production capacity must be increased so that stocks increase. But at the same time, more prosperous countries really need to start delivering their extra doses and agreed donations. Especially now that a lot of countries are very far away in vaccinating their own adult population.”

If vaccine distribution remains as uneven in the coming months as it is today, there will also be risks for the current generation of well-functioning vaccines. “At worst, they need to be updated,” Savelkoul says. “For example, when a selection of variants arises that can bypass vaccines. Although new mRNA vaccines such as Moderna and Pfizer can be adapted fairly quickly, the production and vaccination campaign will have to be completely re-established.”

According to the microbiologist, it is difficult to predict whether that will actually happen. “We are in a global world. But just look at how quickly the Delta variant has emerged and because of its infectivity has also supplanted other variants.”

Savelkoul advises governments in poorer countries to use vaccines that are available wisely. “You have to think about that. Focus on the cities where the interaction between people is highest. You shouldn’t make a copy of the Western approach.”

Meanwhile, Covax still expects to have 1.8 billion vaccine doses by the end of this year for 92 of the poorest countries. De Jong: “we still have a few months to go, of course, but if you look at how few people have been vaccinated in, for example, African countries, you can’t wait.”

About the author: Sarah Thompson

Sarah Thompson is a seasoned cybersecurity analyst with over a decade of experience in deciphering digital threats and vulnerabilities.

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