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Vaccine Hoarding: The False Promise Of Global Herd Immunity

Developed countries have promised to supply poorer countries with vaccines, but so far Europe is lagging behind in donations. With pure politics determining which countries receive vaccines, the broken vow is a threat to everyone.

Vaccine Hoarding: The False Promise Of Global Herd Immunity

A busy street in Cologne, Germany

Ying Tang/NurPhoto/ZUMA
Melanie Loos, with contributions from Tobias Kaiser and Maximilian Kalkhof

BERLIN — In Germany, like in other Western countries, politicians and scientists are debating the merits of vaccines for children and booster jabs. Yet elsewhere, authorities are facing far more fundamental problems in tackling coronavirus. In many countries, especially across Africa, older people and other at-risk groups haven't even had their first vaccine, as there aren't enough doses available.

Although more than 4 billion COVID-19 vaccines have been administered worldwide, not every country has had an equal share: in more developed countries, around half of the population is fully vaccinated, while in the poorest it's less than 2%.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has established the COVAX initiative with the aim of sharing out vaccines more evenly and donating at least 2 billion doses to developing countries by the end of the year, in order to vaccinate around a third of the local population. But that target is still a long way off. Despite ambitious promises, Europe – and especially Germany – is lagging behind in terms of donated vaccines, while China is using its generosity to expand its geopolitical influence. So far, the aim of achieving global herd immunity against COVID is still a pipe dream. And that means that in the long term, the pandemic is far from under control.

According to WHO, we would need 11 billion doses in order to vaccinate 70% of the global population. Scientists from the Duke Global Health Innovation Center in the United States estimate that this year more than 12 billion vaccines will be produced – if suppliers keep up with their projected rates of production.

However, it's unclear whether all of these vaccines will be distributed. New variants could mean we need to develop new vaccines, and we don't yet know if or when booster jabs may be needed, or whether children under 12 should be vaccinated.

Many wealthy countries – especially in Europe – are holding on to their excess vaccines rather than donating them to developing countries. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO's Regional Director for Africa, recently criticized the behavior: "Richer countries hoarding vaccines are making a mockery of the idea of vaccine justice."

These countries will soon have huge amounts of excess vaccines. Germany alone will receive 300 million doses this year. The EU has ordered around 3.6 billion by 2023, although it only needs 1 billion to fully vaccinate its entire population of around 450 million people, including children.

A few months ago, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen insisted that Europe was taking very seriously "its responsibility to combat the virus across the world," and promised to donate 200 million vaccines to COVAX by the end of the year.

Germany has not donated a single dose.

However, the figures show that the EU is nowhere near that target. According to an internal document, so far only around 7.9 million doses have been donated.

The US, on the other hand, has already donated 60 million vaccines to developing countries and has promised a total of 500 million for the COVAX initiative alone. This generosity may have something to do with the fact that the vaccination program has been rolled out far more quickly in the US than in Europe and therefore they reached a stage where they were able to donate vaccines earlier.

In Europe, so far only France and Spain have donated excess vaccines; Germany has not donated a single dose. The German government plans to send the first half million doses this month, but it promised 30 million by the end of the year. France is the most generous country in the EU, having promised 60 million doses. Without Paris, there is no way the European Commission would reach its target of 200 million doses for COVAX.

Beyond COVAX, many countries are donating vaccines directly to poorer states, especially those with which they have strong links. The aims here are not purely humanitarian. Spain is sending a third of its donated vaccines to Latin America, while France and the Netherlands are also prioritizing their former colonies. Other EU countries are donating vaccines to their neighbors in eastern and southeastern Europe, to reduce the potential risk of infections coming across their borders.

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine in Banten, Indonesia — Photo: Donal Husni/ZUMA

Playing favorites with neighbours and drawing on old colonial ties – for some critics that looks a lot like geopolitical nepotism. There is still no clear strategic vision for the global fight against coronavirus, as the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell recently noted.

Meanwhile, China is forging alliances in developing regions of the world through widespread vaccine diplomacy, with Beijing hoping to expand its influence and improve its image. There is even talk of a "Health Silk Road", in the style of China's wider "New Silk Road" economic development Initiative.

The complex system of COVAX and bilateral donations is clearly a patchwork of favors and political machinations. But even if there were a cohesive global strategy, the number of vaccines donated by developed countries would be far from sufficient. According to UNICEF, which is coordinating the delivery of COVAX vaccines, so far only around 190 million vaccines have arrived in 138 developing countries.

A spokesperson from UNICEF Germany pointed out another problem: the lack of health infrastructure in developing countries makes it difficult to administer vaccines efficiently. There is also widespread vaccine hesitancy. In many African countries, not even all health workers are fully vaccinated.

It will be at least 2025 or 2026 before we reach global herd immunity.

This has created a very dangerous situation: for weeks now the COVID infection rate and death rate in Africa have been rising steeply, and the number of unreported cases is likely to be very high due to limited testing capacity. WHO says that to meet the target of vaccinating 30% of the population by the end of the year, we would need more than 700 million additional doses. But even if we achieved this, there would still be too many unvaccinated people in poorer parts of the world for it to be possible to contain the pandemic.

In terms of numbers, it's theoretically possible to vaccinate the global population next year, if the suppliers step up production as planned. But realistically it will be at least 2025 or 2026 before we reach global herd immunity, says Clemens Schwanhold from the NGO One. "If," then.

Rich countries like Germany need to donate far more vaccines than they are currently doing. "Europe should look to the U.S. as a model, as they intend to donate 500 million doses by the end of the year," says Schwanhold.

It's clear that as long as vaccines are not fairly distributed, global herd immunity will remain elusive. It's a race against time, partly because the vaccines are perishable but also because of the danger of new variants, against which the available vaccines may not be effective.

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