Fifth of the world's population may not have coronavirus vaccine until 2022, scientists warn

Illustrative picture of coronavirus vaccine under trail
High-income countries pre-ordering coronavirus vaccine doses may mean less-developed nations go without, scientists have warned. (Stock, Getty Images)

At least a fifth of the world’s population may not have access to a coronavirus vaccine until 2022, experts have warned.

An effective immunisation programme has long been hailed as a route back to life as we once knew it.

Early in the outbreak, officials in many countries pre-ordered millions of doses of vaccine candidates, despite there being no guarantee the jabs would be approved.

Scientists from John Hopkins University in Baltimore analysed these pre-orders, discovering a handful of countries have reserved 7.48 billion doses, enough to immunise around 3.74 billion people as part of the vaccines’ typical two-dose regimens.

Just over half (51%) of these doses will go to high-income nations, despite them being home to just 14% of the world’s population.

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Many high-income countries have purchased doses through a scheme that ensures less-developed nations also receive the jabs.

The John Hopkins scientists have warned, however, even if the leading pharmaceutical firms maxed out their vaccine production capacity, at least a fifth of the global population would not get immunised until 2022.

Portrait of a mature man standing on the street wearing a protective face mask for the coronavirus pandemic.
An effective vaccine has long been hailed as a route back to life as we once knew it, freeing people from the constraints of face coverings. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

Writing in The BMJ, the scientists said: “This study provides an overview of how high-income countries have secured future supplies of COVID-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus] vaccines, but access for the rest of the world is uncertain.

“Governments and manufacturers might provide much needed assurances for equitable allocation of COVID-19 vaccines through greater transparency and accountability over these arrangements.”

Since the coronavirus outbreak was identified, more than 1.6 million people are known to have died with the infection worldwide.

Hopes were raised when the UK become the first country to approve Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus jab candidate, a move that was followed by US regulators.

These doses have to be stored at around -80C (-112F), which may make it logistically challenging to immunise rural residents of less developed countries.

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With no single pharmaceutical company able to immunise the global population, close to 50 vaccine candidates are in clinical testing, while more than 160 are in a preclinical stage.

Many high-income countries have purchased vaccine doses through the so-called COVAX Facility.

Partially co-ordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO), the COVAX initiative invests part of a country’s payment for coronavirus vaccines into doses for poorer countries.

The facility has “broad country participation”, however, the US and Russia have opted out.

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To better understand the “premarket purchase commitments” for the vaccines, the John Hopkins scientists analysed the WHO’s “draft landscape” of the jab candidates.

They also looked at company disclosures to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as government press releases and media reports.

As of 15 November, several countries had reserved a collective 7.48 billion coronavirus vaccine doses, purchased from 13 manufacturers.

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The US had reserved 800 million doses, while accounting for a fifth of all global coronavirus cases.

Japan, Australia and Canada had collectively pre-ordered more than one billion doses, despite not making up even 1% of worldwide coronavirus incidences.

Overall, 51% of the pre-ordered doses are set to go to high-income countries.

Low and middle-income nations will receive the remaining doses, despite these countries making up more than 85% of the world’s population.

If all 13 of the vaccine manufacturers scaled up production to maximum capacity, 5.96 billion courses – with two doses each – would be expected by the end of 2021.

Up to 40% of these vaccine courses may be reserved for low and middle-income countries, suggested the John Hopkins scientists.

This would partially depend, however, on whether high-income countries shared their orders, as well as if the US and Russia participated in global efforts, they added.

The team stressed, however, even if all of the vaccine manufacturers reached maximum production capacity, at least a fifth of the world’s population would not have access to a jab until 2022.

Dr Jason Schwartz from Yale, who was not involved in the research, pointed out many countries have already committed to equitable coronavirus vaccine purchasing through the COVAX Facility.

He added, however, vigilance is required “to ensure such aspirations are realised in the months and years ahead.”

Dr Schwartz argued worldwide coronavirus vaccination programmes “require unprecedented global coordination and a sustained commitment of resources - financial, logistical, and technical - from high-income countries.”

“The election of Joe Biden in the US signals the country’s imminent re-engagement in the global community, including the World Health Organization, and in global health priorities,” he wrote.

“US participation in vaccination efforts will be invaluable in challenges ahead, and in ensuring all populations globally have access to the COVID-19 vaccines that will ultimately help bring an end to this devastating global health crisis.”

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