The World Health Organisation (WHO) has missed its own deadline of having 40% of every country’s adult population fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of 2021.
Two years on and the pandemic continues to rage on as new emerging variants pose threats to bringing the virus under control.
More than 287-million cases of COVID-19 have been recorded and nearly 5-and-half-million people have died since the virus first emerged in 2019.
‘Pneumonia-like virus outbreak’
Back in 2019, on December 31st, as the world prepared to usher in a new year — China confirmed and notified the WHO of a pneumonia-like virus outbreak. The city of Wuhan’s healthcare system was under immense pressure — authorities imposed lockdown.
Three months later that virus now known as COVID-19 had spread into a global pandemic. The first year of the international health crisis was characterised by the unknown and scientific advancements in learning the virus.
Vaccines production went full steam ahead by December 2020 — the first vaccine was rolled in the United States.
2021 was seen as a hopeful year, one where vaccines would be equitably distributed across the world through multilateral commitments – the rich subsidising the poor. But that wasn’t the case.
Vaccine apartheid saw rich countries reneging on their agreements to share doses with low-income nations. Frustration for the WHO’s Director-General, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus.
“2021 has been a painful year for many of us. But we cannot allow it to be the worst year. As we approach the new year we must all learn the painful lessons this year taught us. 2022 must be the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it must also be the beginning of something else. We must leave 2021 behind in sorrow and look forward to 2022 in hope.”
WHO’s Dr Tedros says we should all aim to end COVID-19 in 2022
Africa vaccinates only 10%
As it stands Africa still has only vaccinated about 10% of its adult population while North America and Europe have begun administering booster shots. Ghebreysus blamed the failure to reach the target on vaccine apartheid which saw low-income nations being denied vaccines for several months.
“92 member states out of the 194 missed the 40% target. This is due to a combination of limited supply going to low-income countries for most of the year and subsequent vaccines arriving close to expiry and without key parts like syringes. 40% was doable it’s not only moral shame it costs lives and provides the virus opportunities to circulate unchecked and mutate.”
Director for Emergencies, Dr Mike Ryan says it’s been disappointing to watch.
“What we’ve lacked in the collective will across countries and between countries to be really comprehensive and sustainable in the strategies. And I believe that populations and communities have become confused by all the changing guidelines and we’ve also had huge issues of trust. Notwithstanding what Maria said about vaccine inequity which is the most horrific injustice of 2021 and I hope that it can be improved by 2022.”
Ghebreyesus has challenged world leaders from rich nations to abandon vaccine nationalism in order to bring the end of the pandemic closer. He’s calling on them to honour their pledges of donating COVID-19 doses to low-income nations, who are struggling to get adequate vaccine coverage in 2022.
The WHO chief, says if immunisation is normalised and made accessible to all — the world may just be able to better manage the virus.
“This is the time to rise above short term nationalism and protect populations and economies against future variants by ending global vaccine inequity. I want governments and industry and civil society to work with us on a campaign that targets 70% vaccine coverage in every country by the start of July. I also want to ensure that COVID-19 care with new treatments is available in every single country.”
The Director-General also discouraged the administration of booster shots until vaccine equity has been achieved across all nations.
“Sage concluded that the focus of immunisation should be on decreasing deaths and severe disease and expressed concern that blanket booster programmes will exacerbate vaccine equity. About 20% of all vaccines given now are boosters or additional doses. Blanket boost programmes are likely to prolong the pandemic rather than ending it by diverting supply to countries which already have high coverage giving the virus more opportunity to spread.”
And the virus continues to mutate into new strains. There is increasing concern about the efficacy of existing vaccines. WHO says it’s still early to declare any COVID-19 vaccines ineffective against the latest variant, Omicron.
It says a technical team is monitoring the situation and tracking vaccine efficacy against all new developments. Data shows that the unvaccinated are suffering from more severe symptoms than those who opted to take the jab.
Omicron has been found to be the most transmissible variant identified. Chief Scientific Officer, Soumya Swaminathan, says they will de studying the data before making any announcements against vaccines.
“TAG Covac has been meeting regularly to develop the criteria for when a vaccine strain change may be needed and if so what should be the consensus sequence because with Omicron you have a number of sequences. So the committee has to select the consensus specific sequence that manufacturers will need to use to which vaccines and that would happen if the current lot of vaccines is not providing enough protection.”
The health body has warned that COVID-19 is unlikely to completely go away. It says however that the acute phase of the pandemic — which is categorised by deaths and severe illness — can be beaten by the end of 2022.
Ryan says science has given us enough tools to end the global pandemic and create safe communities again. He believes that COVID-19 can get to a stage where smaller outbreaks are manageable like the SARS and Avian Flu.
“It will probably settle down into a pattern of transmission low level causing occasional outbreaks in under-vaccinated populations and we hope that is the end game here. But we are certainly not there. There is going to be a bumpy road on the low level of COVID getting the vaccine equity equation right by continuing to protect the most vulnerable in our countries we can bring the acute phase of the pandemic the phase of death and hospitalisation to an end.”