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The world just missed its first major vaccine target. Here’s why
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The world just missed its first major vaccine target. Here’s why

Tuesday 28 September 2021

Ten per cent of every country’s population was meant to be fully vaccinated by the end of this month. But poorer countries, in particular, just haven’t had the doses


Four months ago, the director general of the World Health Organization gave the global community a straightforward goal: to fully vaccinate 10 per cent of every country’s population by the end of September. He also set two other benchmarks: 40 per cent of every country by the end of 2021 and 60 per cent by mid-2022.

As September draws to a close, this plan – which was backed by the heads of the IMF, WTO and World Bank – has already fallen far behind. As it stands, the world has missed the first goal by 116 million people – a shortfall roughly the size of Japan. Three quarters of those who should be fully vaccinated by now are yet to receive a single dose. 

A total of 60 countries are yet to vaccinate 10 per cent of the population. Most will miss the target by a substantial margin. Thirty-eight countries, including Nigeria, Ethiopia and the DR Congo, Sub-Saharan Africa’s three most populous countries, have vaccination rates of less than 3 per cent.

While the schedule focuses on the number of people who are fully vaccinated, first doses also display slow progress. Forty-eight countries are yet to hit the 10 per cent threshold for first doses. In 29 countries, fewer than 3 per cent of the population have received their first dose. 

As the world falls behind schedule, it’s worth noting that these are relatively modest targets. The 10 per cent threshold is one that even countries with slower vaccine roll-outs, like Brazil and Australia, were able to meet by the middle of the summer. 

Rapidly vaccinating countries like the US and the UK – both of which reached vaccination rates of 10 per cent more than six months ago – have set far more ambitious goals for themselves. One of the Biden administration’s goals, for instance, was to vaccinate 70 per cent of American adults before the Fourth of July.

With richer countries now embarking on booster campaigns, vaccine inequality is now at an all-time high. Together, the G7 nations have now fully vaccinated 489 million people – almost two thirds of their combined population. This compares to just 2.5 per cent in low-income countries. 

This has happened because wealthy countries have put themselves first. By striking expensive deals with vaccine suppliers, rich countries have been able to get to the front of the queue for vaccines. Put succinctly by WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus, rich countries have “gobbled up” vaccine supply.

This has left low-income countries in a situation where they “simply cannot access sufficient vaccine” to achieve the global targets, according to a recent press release from the heads of the IMF, World Bank, WHO and WTO.

We are now three days from the date when countries should have 10 per cent of their populations fully vaccinated, and 38 countries are yet to even receive enough shipments to cover double doses for 10 per cent of their populations, according to data from a tracker published by the IMF and WHO.

This supply shortfall was not supposed to happen. Over a year ago, international health groups established Covax, an initiative tasked with managing dose donations and vaccine funding to distribute doses to developing countries free of charge. The initiative has received pledges and donations of over 5 billion doses.

But in practice, Covax has struggled to quickly ramp up deliveries. As it stands, only 307 million of these 5 billion doses have actually been shipped. A higher rate of deliveries is expected in the final months of this year, but its most recent forecast downgraded its expected deliveries for 2021 from 1.9 billion to 1.4 billion.

One example of the challenges faced by Covax in March, when shipments from one its main suppliers – India’s Serum Institute – were interrupted by an unexpected move from the Indian government to ban all vaccine exports. The decision, prompted by the catastrophic wave of Indian Covid cases this spring, had a knock-on effect of cutting off millions of Covax’s deliveries.

The summer saw further setbacks including slow production schedules and regulatory delays. The result is that, despite promises of dose donations, a large number of low-income countries still have too few jabs to reach this week’s target.

The target was a crucial stepping stone to reaching further targets down the line. The next key target for the end of this year – just three months time – is full vaccination for 40 per cent of the populations of all countries. If that target falls behind, then so too will the ultimate target of vaccinating 60 per cent of every population by mid-2022.

Photograph by David Talukdar/NurPhoto via Getty Images