Coronavirus: Rich countries are hogging all the COVID-19 vaccines - study

Three countries that account for fewer than 1 percent of the world's coronavirus cases to date have reserved more than 1 billion vaccine doses. 

Australia, Canada and Japan's stockpiling of initial vaccine supplies could leave much of the rest of the world with "uncertain access", a new paper published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) this week claims.

Just over half of vaccines pre-purchased ahead of release went to countries representing just 14 percent of the world's population. And based on current trends only 40 percent of vaccine courses by the end of 2021 - assuming manufacturers are able to scale up production - will be available for low- to middle-income countries representing 85 percent of the world's population.

Even a best-case scenario where the US reverses Donald Trump's 'America First' policies and manufacturers are able to scale up production, "at least a fifth of the world's population would not have access to vaccines until 2022".

"This study reveals a portrait, in part, of how high-income countries have sought to secure future supplies of COVID-19 vaccines, but have left much of the rest of the world with uncertain access."

The research, conducted at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, backs up claims by NGOs like Oxfam and Amnesty International, as well as the World Health Organization (WHO), that 'vaccine nationalism' puts the world's efforts to end the pandemic at risk. 

"Globally what we need to do - and New Zealand has a part to play here - is get pharmaceutical companies to openly share their technological know-how and intellectual property rights about how to make the vaccine," Oxfam spokesperson Joanna Spratt told Newshub last week. 

"If they share it, we can massively ramp up production and get enough vaccinations for everybody."

New Zealand won't be supporting moves at the World Trade Organization to waive patents for the vaccines, instead throwing its support behind the international COVAX effort to buy vaccines for low-income countries. COVAX is the vaccine department of the WHO's Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator programme. 

New Zealand's first payment to COVAX was $27 million from the COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund. As of last month, more than $5 billion had been donated from the EU, countries such as France, Spain and Korea, and philanthropists including Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The WHO says billions more are needed - as much as $24 billion in 2021. 

"Fully financing the ACT Accelerator would shorten the pandemic, saving millions of lives with the investment paid back in as little as 36 hours as the global economy recovers," the WHO website reads.

In an accompanying editorial in the BMJ, Yale School of Public Health assistant professor Jason Schwartz says it will take an "unprecedented global coordination and a sustained commitment of resources - financial, logistical, and technical - from high-income countries" to get vaccines to everyone who needs them.

Much will depend on the actions of the US, he writes, after the departure of Trump. 

"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.

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

The US has had the worst of the pandemic, losing more than 300,000 lives in the first 10 months. Trump, in his final year as President, played down its seriousness and spread false information about its effects and how to fight it. Incoming President Biden has promised to make it a priority.