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Still Covid

Still Covid

In the two years since Boris Johnson told the UK to stay at home, Covid has claimed more than 160,000 lives. Vaccines have saved lives across the world, but many fewer than they might have if fairly distributed

Today marks two years since Boris Johnson gave what he called a “simple instruction”: stay at home. But dealing with a pandemic was never going to be simple. 

By that Monday in 2020, 937 people were reported as dying from Covid. Since then, another 162,992 have died in the UK. Mercifully, that number is lower than it could have been. Lockdowns and mask-wearing have played their part, but vaccines have been a lifesaver. They have not cut infection rates as dramatically as hoped, but the case fatality rate for those with Covid in the US is 20 times higher for the unvaccinated than the fully vaccinated. 

As dose four is being rolled out for the most vulnerable, 91.7 per cent of UK residents have had at least one jab and 62.7 per cent have had a booster. The most dominant variant is the relatively-mild Omicron, the economy has fully reopened and the government’s preferred narrative of “living with Covid” can seem plausible, even though case numbers are rising steeply again and the seven-day rolling average of deaths hovers close to 100.

Not every country has the luxury of even imagining such a narrative. Efforts to vaccinate the world on an equitable basis have fallen short from day one. Covax, conceived in January 2020 at the Hard Rock Hotel bar in Davos by Richard Hatchett, who runs the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi the Vaccine Alliance, was set up as a platform to coordinate global vaccination efforts.  

Berkley called it “the only truly global solution to this pandemic” because, he said, “it is the only effort to ensure that people in all corners of the world will get access to vaccines once they are available”. But the road has been bumpy – and still is. 

The goal. The targets set by the World Health Organisation for global vaccinations were/are: 

  • 10 per cent coverage in all countries by September 2021
  • 40 per cent by December 2021 
  • 70 per cent by the end of June this year
  • The US, currently the biggest donor to global vaccination efforts, has set a separate goal of 70 per cent coverage by September this year. 

From the outset, Tortoise’s Arms Race campaign has championed efforts to vaccinate the world on the basis of need rather than means, and as the best available defence against new variants. We’ve tracked those efforts here

The reality: 

  • 19 countries, according to the Global Covid-19 Access Tracker, still achieved the basic goal of 10 per cent coverage. Most are in the central belt of Africa. 
  • 84 countries still haven’t met the 40 per cent target. 24 of those are low-income countries. 
  • Only one high-income country – the Bahamas – still hasn’t reached the 40 per cent goal. 
  • 174 countries haven’t hit the 70 per cent target. 
  • Of those, 128 including the US are not on track to reach that goal. 
  • Unicef predicts 16.8 billion vaccine doses will be produced by the end of this year, and current production rates average 1.5 billion doses per month. There are 7.9 billion people on the planet. 

What next? Producing vaccines is one thing; getting them where they are needed is another. The Washington Post has a scathing report on the failures of Covax as a mechanism for global vaccination. It says Unicef, which handles Covax’s logistics, stated that 80 million doses were rejected in December largely due to “limited capacity” on the ground as well as limited shelf life. Insiders also reported an initial “badmouthing” of mRNA vaccines because of their cost and concerns they wouldn’t be authorised by health authorities. mRNA vaccines have since been found to be the most effective, especially against Omicron. 

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS said bluntly: “Covax has disappointed Africa.” Instead of relying on a drip-feed of donations from Covax, countries have instead turned to their own procurement routes, making it hard for international organisations to coordinate vaccination drives. 

Future variants. The more Covid spreads, in both vaccinated and unvaccinated groups, the greater the likelihood of new variants. Whether they become “variants of concern” is a separate question and Robert Bollinger of John Hopkins University cautions against overreacting. The important thing is to manage what is in our control: testing, treatment, vaccines.

Continue reading in today’s Sensemaker.