Looming supply gap threatens EU, U.S. vaccination plans, yet wrestling not way out
-- With the global vaccination drive having begun, a limited vaccine supply has frustrated rollout efforts in the European Union (EU) and the United States.
-- The widespread frustration has raised concerns about international competition for limited vaccine supplies, especially among wealthy nations, which have rushed to secure vaccine deals.
-- China has decided to provide COVID-19 vaccine doses to COVAX to meet the urgent needs of developing countries, at the request of the WHO.
COVID-19 vaccines are key to bringing life back to normal around the world. Yet, a fair and efficient rollout of the vaccines was never going to be easy.
With the global vaccination drive having begun, a limited vaccine supply has frustrated rollout efforts in the European Union (EU) and the United States, while gaps in access, especially huge disparities between the developed and developing world, have become glaringly evident.
The EU's vaccination programs have been plagued with supply issues. Italy recently filed a complaint with the bloc against Pfizer, BioNTech and AstraZeneca, for failing to deliver the vaccines quickly enough. Various EU member states have also experienced similar issues as pharmaceutical companies are supplying vaccines slower than anticipated.
On Jan. 15, Pfizer and BioNTech said in a statement that their facility in Puurs, Belgium will experience a temporary reduction in the number of doses delivered in the upcoming week due to "certain modifications of production processes."
The two companies then said in another statement released on Monday that they are back to the original schedule of dose deliveries to the EU.
However, the EU's vaccine supply issue is far more complex. "Shortfalls in COVID-19 vaccine deliveries from U.S. drugmaker Moderna have spread across Europe," Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, the EU has been frustrated by AstraZeneca's previous announcement that it might deliver considerably fewer doses than promised for the first quarter.
In the United States, the situation is similarly fraught.
"All 50 states in the U.S. are reporting shortages as America's fragmented administrative and health care systems struggle to distribute even the limited vaccine stocks that have been produced," NBC News reported late last month.
The former U.S. administration's vaccine distribution plan was blasted for leaving it up to county and city administrators, who have zero experience with vaccine distribution plans, especially of this magnitude.
The widespread frustration has raised concerns about international competition for limited vaccine supplies, especially among wealthy nations, which have rushed to secure vaccine deals, analysts said.
According to a Bloomberg COVID-19 deals tracker updated on Jan. 30, 8.56 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines have already been reserved, which would be enough to cover more than half the world's population if the shots were distributed evenly, with most vaccines comprised of two doses.
However, "rich countries have accumulated extensive supply deals. Some countries may have to wait until 2022 or later before supplies are widely available," the media outlet said.
Speaking at a press briefing on Jan. 29, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, "vaccine nationalism might serve short-term political goals. But it's ultimately short-sighted and self-defeating."
More worryingly, the WHO chief last month warned of the moral consequences of the lack of COVID-19 vaccines for poorer countries, calling higher-income countries more privileged compared to developing countries.
Some experts also voiced concern over the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
"Unfortunately, it is going according to the principle of the strongest: the richer countries like the U.S., Canada, also many EU countries secure the vaccines in bilateral negotiations. In a global pandemic, such behavior is reckless," said Maximilian Gertler, an expert at the Institute for Tropical Medicine and International Health in Berlin, in an interview with the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel.
Vaccine shortage has also prompted more to consider diversifying vaccine supply.
"There's a bit of the developing world that produces vaccines and does so very efficiently and provides them to the rest of the world; India and China in the pharmaceutical value chains are right up there," Uma Kambhampati, professor of economics at the University of Reading in Britain, told Xinhua.
The EU and its member states have also expressed their openness to vaccines from developing countries like China.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said that vaccines from Russia and China could be approved for use in the EU if they "show all the data," AFP quoted the bloc's lawmakers as saying.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said recently that he is open to the use of vaccines from Russia or China in Germany.
For now, Hungary is the only EU member state that has authorized the use of China's Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine and a Russian vaccine.
On a global scale, the WHO chief has stressed that COVAX needs to "receive extra doses soon, and not the leftovers many months from now."
The WHO-led initiative aims to accelerate the development and manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.
For its part, China has decided to provide COVID-19 vaccine doses to COVAX to meet the urgent needs of developing countries, at the request of the WHO, the country's Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday.
"We hope that capable countries in the international community can play an active role and take concrete actions to support COVAX as well as the WHO's work," spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, "so as to help developing countries receive vaccines in time and contribute to the global defeat of the pandemic at an early date."