Pandemic Surges Again as Anxiety Grows Over Vaccine Shortages

The United Nations’ health agency called on richer countries like the U.S. to share their stockpiles of vaccine doses as the world faces another surge in the coronavirus pandemic.

Passengers wearing masks as a precaution against the coronavirus wait for transportation at a bus station in Jammu, India, on Friday, March 26. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

(CN) — With the coronavirus pandemic accelerating around the globe, the World Health Organization on Friday pleaded with richer nations to share their stockpiles of vaccine doses with the rest of the world.

For the fifth week in a row, the number of new infections globally has risen and once again the world is reporting more than a half million new cases each day. Deaths are rising too, with more than 9,000 people dying each day on average. Globally, nearly 2.8 million deaths have been linked to Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“There are plenty of countries who can afford to donate doses with little disruption to their own vaccination plans,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, at a news briefing at the agency’s Geneva headquarters.

The United States in particular is coming under pressure to donate doses it has stockpiled to the WHO’s global vaccination initiative, called Covax.

The U.S. is expecting its supply of vaccines to outstrip demand by mid-May and it’s projecting to have more than enough doses for its entire adult population of 260 million by the end of May. In fact, the U.S. already has lined up enough vaccines to inoculate about 70 million more people than its entire population and it is working to add to its stockpile.

About 14% of Americans have been fully vaccinated, one of the highest rates in the world. By comparison, only about 2% of Brazil’s population has been fully vaccinated, leaving South America’s largest country at risk of seeing its catastrophic death toll rise much higher. This week, Brazil’s death toll surpassed 300,000, the second-highest after the U.S., where more than 560,000 people have died.

Tedros said “sharing doses is a tough political choice” but that it was paramount that vaccination speeds up around the world.

About three-quarters of the world’s supply of vaccines have gone to only 10 countries. Vaccination programs are only getting started in most of the world and they have not yet started in 20 countries, Tedros said.

Vaccine shortages are set to get even worse too. This week, India began diverting nearly all of the 2.4 million doses manufactured each day at the Serum Institute of India, one of the world’s largest manufacturers, to its own people. India is in the midst of a new wave of the disease with 59,000 new cases reported on Thursday. The European Union, meanwhile, is threatening to halt vaccine exports so that it can ramp up its sluggish vaccine rollout.

Tedros said the WHO’s global efforts have been hampered by vaccine hoarding. “Bilateral deals, export bans, vaccine nationalism and vaccine diplomacy have caused distortions in the market with gross inequities in supply and demand,” he said.

Dr. Bruce Alyward, a senior WHO adviser, called on nations to share their vaccine stockpiles with the rest of the world before inoculating younger people who are at less risk from Covid-19.

“What we’re trying to ensure is that as countries now reach more and more of their populations, they look at the vaccines they have access to, they look at the contracts that they have, and they say, ‘You know what, we can share some of this now, at this point, before we go into younger populations with vaccines,’” he said. “It’s in everyone’s common interest to do that.”

On Monday, Tedros called the disparity between nations in vaccinations “grotesque.” The agency warns the virus may mutate and become even more dangerous, potentially undermining the efficacy of vaccines, the longer it runs rampant around the world.

“The gap between the number of vaccines administered in rich countries, and the number of vaccines administered through Covax is growing every single day, and becoming more grotesque every day,” Tedros said. “Countries that are now vaccinating younger, healthy people at low risk of disease are doing so at the cost of the lives of health workers, older people and other at-risk groups in other countries.”

So far, Covax has delivered about 32 million vaccine doses to 61 countries. But the United Nations health agency says it desperately needs hundreds of millions of more doses in the coming months.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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