The world is at a tipping point in the battle to contain the spread of Covid-19. Countries across Asia are struggling to access vaccines while tens of thousands are dying from the disease. Richer countries are sitting on enough doses to vaccinate their populations many times over.
Sharing vaccine doses right now is our best shot if we are to prevent further catastrophe in Asia.
Recently the G20 countries with 80% of the world’s wealth held a global health summit and called for sharing of vaccines and production technology between nations.
Pharmaceutical companies made commitments to sell cut-price vaccines to lower income countries. Some companies and countries have offered intellectual property waivers or sharing of technologies on Covid-19 vaccines. The United States and Europe offered to share more vaccines and the raw materials for manufacturing. These are all positive moves. Formany parts of Asia, the burning issue now is speed.
Countries with vaccine stockpiles need to sell or share their millions of excess doses either directly or via the global COVAX facility to help save lives in countries experiencing record death rates. And they need to do so as quickly as possible.
We only need to look at Britain and the United States to see how mass vaccination can help contain the disease. In the United Kingdom, Covid-19 vaccines have so far prevented 13,200 deaths and 39,700 hospitalisations according to Public Health England. In the race against new waves, new variants, and new tragedies, we need such good news at a global level too.
Eight of the 10 countries in the world that are seeing infections double the fastest are in Asia and the Pacific. Many of these countries, such as Fiji and Timor Leste have low vaccination rates and fragile health systems.
Many countries in Asia, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal are down to their last doses, forcing authorities to suspend or scale down their vaccine rollouts. Just 3% of people in India and less than 1% in the Philippines have been fully vaccinated, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data.
A majority of Asian and other lower income nations simply cannot compete with richer countries in the race to buy vaccines. Pakistan has ordered enough doses to inoculate only 3% of its population, while the European Union has enough to vaccinate its population 3.5 times over, according to Duke Global Health Innovation Center.
It’s not just about purchasing power. It’s also about the resources needed to distribute and vaccinate. Britain is vaccinating people 13 times faster than Nepal, while the United States is administering more than 2.5 times as many doses per day as India for every 100 people.
Even with limited supplies, countries across Asia are rushing to vaccinate as many people as possible. Every day, millions of frontline health workers, including Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers, are risking their own safety to provide lifesaving medical treatment and immunisations. These staff and volunteers needed to be vaccinated as a priority so they can make other people safe. Many critical workers have still not received even a first dose.
I am writing this from Malaysia, which has one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates in the world. Intensive care units and hospitals in many countries around Asia are full. Judging from what we’ve seen in India and Nepal, demand for oxygen will outweigh supply in countries across the continent and many people will die, people who wouldn’t die if they were vaccinated.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is supporting the vaccine roll out, working with health authorities to run vaccination centres, keeping people safe with clean water, soap and hygiene, and delivering oxygen supplies. It all helps but is a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed to contain Covid-19.
The only solution is immediate vaccination to scale at record rates. Scaling up production and sharing intellectual property rights will both make a huge difference in the medium term. In the short term, sharing surplus vaccine doses is one of the fastest ways to save lives. If there ever was a global imperative for the world to act in solidarity, it is now.
Alexander Matheou is Asia Pacific Director at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.