The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Half the world is now fully vaccinated. But the global divide is stark, experts say.

A woman labels pallets as workers unload a shipment of AstraZeneca vaccine in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in February 2021. (SIA KAMBOU/AFP via Getty Images)
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About a year after wealthier nations began rolling out coronavirus vaccines, more than half the world’s population has been fully vaccinated — a logistical feat without precedent in human history.

But the global rollout remains uneven, with poor countries reporting much lower vaccination rates than rich countries. Public health experts have been warning that vaccine inequity is helping prolong the pandemic, as the focus of those seeking to speed up global vaccine coverage begins to shift from resolving a shortfall of supply to distributing doses and persuading people to get them.

Nearly 54 percent of the world’s population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to Our World in Data, an information partnership between the University of Oxford and the Global Change Data Lab charity. Nearly 62 percent have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

Here’s just how unequal the global coronavirus vaccine rollout has been

Yet less than 11 percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, Our World in Data says. That number jumps to about 55 percent for lower-middle-income countries and nearly 80 percent for both upper-middle-income and high-income nations.

The United States, countries of the European Union and others were criticized for buying up most of the early global supply of coronavirus vaccines. Covax, a U.N.-backed global vaccine-sharing initiative, was created in April 2020 as a way of ensuring that the rest of the world could access the vaccines it needed. The effort initially struggled to secure enough doses because supplies were limited and went to the highest bidder.

Now vaccine doses are less scarce. Covax shipped its billionth dose in mid-January, and according to the World Health Organization, African countries were sent twice as many vaccine doses in January as six months ago.

As the supply grows, there are other reasons some countries are not hitting vaccination targets, public health experts say.

The WHO last month said nearly 90 countries had not reached the public health agency’s national vaccination target for late 2021 and were not on track to reach its target for mid-2022. Many of those countries are in Africa, where 85 percent of people have not received any dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

WHO officials said at a news conference last month that countries that are lagging behind face several challenges in administering vaccines, including a lack of “leadership and coordination,” “health worker shortages” and vaccine hesitancy.

Why Africa is perilously far behind on coronavirus vaccination

The officials also blamed the inequitable rollout of vaccines, in part, on wealthy countries.

Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the WHO’s director general, said at the Jan. 12 news conference that although developed nations “did not share vaccines for six months, seven months, eight months — what we did share was a lot of misinformation, a lot of bad practice, a lot of problems.”

“We’ve made it twice as hard or three times as hard for low-income countries, many of them, to be able to achieve high coverage,” Aylward said, adding that poorer countries were struggling with vaccine hesitancy, a lack of financing and donated vaccines with very short shelf lives.

At a conference of the E.U.’s health and foreign ministers on Wednesday, officials appeared to acknowledge that donating vaccines to the developing world is not enough. “Donating vaccines is one thing,” E.U. Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said. “Ensuring we vaccinate people is another.”

Countries that are struggling to vaccinate their populations need more health-care professionals and medical equipment, larger investments in medical research and “state-of-the-art manufacturing capabilities” for domestic vaccine production, Kyriakides said, citing an E.U. pledge of about $1.1 billion for a “Team Europe initiative on manufacturing and access to vaccines, medicines and health technologies in Africa.”

Covax vaccine deliveries surge in final stretch of 2021, with a record 300 million doses sent out in December

At a news briefing of the WHO Regional Office for Africa on Thursday, public health officials were cautiously optimistic about African countries’ pandemic outlook. If “current trends continue, the continent can control the pandemic in 2022,” the office said in a news release, adding that “continued vigilance is key” to dealing with outbreaks and monitoring the possible emergence of new variants.

“Although Africa still lags behind on vaccination, with only 11 percent of the adult population fully vaccinated, we now have a steady supply of doses flowing in,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa.

Now, she said, efforts should be focused on “scaling-up COVID-19 vaccine uptake” in African countries, as well as increasing the capacity for testing and surveillance of coronavirus variants.