Tracking The Coronavirus Pandemic And Vaccine Rollouts

Pfizer Covid-19 trial vaccine

GENEVA- SHIFTMEDIA- The coronavirus pandemic continues to test humanitarian responses in 2021, while the world faces new questions about how to ensure equal access to vaccines.

Many countries are rolling out coronavirus vaccination plans, but it’s unclear when – and in some cases, how – these vaccines will reach people caught in crisis zones. The COVID-19 pandemic is driving record-breaking humanitarian needs: Global aid response plans total more than $35 billion this year.

Parts of Central and South America have become the new pandemic epicentres, the head of the Pan American Health Organization warned on 3 March.

COVID-19 cases are rapidly rising in parts of Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, Panama, and Brazil –  particularly in areas with large Indigenous populations.

“In Peru’s Amazonian state of Loreto, every ICU bed is occupied by a COVID patient,” said Director Carissa F. Etienne. “Meanwhile, Colombia’s department of Amazonas is reporting the country’s highest COVID rates.”

More than half of global COVID deaths in the previous week were in the Americas, Etienne said.

In 2020, the pandemic doubled the number of people who needed humanitarian aid worldwide, according to the UN, setting up this year’s record $35 billion appeal.

As of February 2021, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, had tallied more than 49,000 COVID-19 cases among refugees and displaced people around the world, including 446 deaths.

Beyond the immediate humanitarian impacts, the cost of helping the world’s most vulnerable 10 percent facing COVID-19’s socio-economic repercussions could total $90 billion, according to UN estimates. The World Bank estimates the pandemic pushed between 119 million and 124 million “new poor” into extreme poverty last year – a shift unlikely to be reversed in 2021.

Vaccines: Queue-jumping, unequal rollouts, and humanitarian stockpiles

There’s a clear divide in who has early access to coronavirus vaccines.

Public health officials warn of “vaccine nationalism”, hoarding, and queue-jumping as wealthier countries buy up early supplies.

“The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries,” said the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

As of mid-February, three-quarters of all global doses were in only 10 countries, and more than 94 percent of countries beginning vaccinations were high-income or upper-middle-income. Some 130 countries hadn’t yet administered a single dose.

The WHO has inked agreements to reserve some 1.3 billion doses for 92 low- and middle-income countries under the COVAX programme, which was created with the goal of ensuring equal vaccine access, including doses for at least 20 percent of countries’ populations.

But Tedros said wealthier countries are circumventing COVAX by signing dozens of bilateral deals with manufacturers – driving up prices and potentially delaying COVAX deliveries. He urged countries to vaccinate health workers and older people, then share excess doses with COVAX.

Countries began receiving their first COVAX doses in late February and early March. Current planning calls for some 330 million doses – enough to cover 3.3 percent of participating countries’ populations – in the first half of 2021.

As of 12 March, funding for the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, the WHO-led partnership that includes the COVAX programme, was short $22.1 billion – more than two thirds of the projected budget for 2021.

Beyond vaccine access at the country level, there are fears that marginalised groups often left out of government health planning at the best of times – migrants, refugees, and other people in crises, for example – may be at the very back of the queue.

“Those living in humanitarian emergencies or in settings that are not under the control of national governments are at risk of being left behind and must be part of COVID-19 vaccination efforts,” warned the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, an umbrella group for humanitarian responders.

The UNHCR says 94 of 130 countries have “committed to include forcibly displaced people” in national vaccination plans.

The COVAX programme includes plans for a “humanitarian buffer”, which would see five percent of the total doses stockpiled for “acute outbreaks” or for use by humanitarian groups. Potential uses could include vaccinating “refugees who may not otherwise have access”, according to Gavi, the global vaccine alliance. However, the buffer is waiting for formal approval from Gavi’s board (this is expected later in March). The costs of actually delivering vaccines from this stockpile aren’t clear – current global humanitarian appeals do not include vaccine rollout costs.

At the same time, vaccine hesitancy is growing around the globe, according to researchers at the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, and could become “the primary obstacle to global immunity”. Researchers pointed to multi-country surveys that suggest rising reluctance to vaccinate. “If this is the case, we will soon find that producing enough vaccines does not translate to enough vaccinations,” the researchers said. (New Humanitarian)

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