New York: The deadly increase in COVID-19 cases in India could potentially occur elsewhere if vulnerable countries do not have access to vaccines, the head of the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, warned on Monday in a bid to get richer nations to share their excess doses.
Henrietta Fore, the agency’s Executive Director, issued the statement from New York as G7 leaders gear up for their summit next month in the United Kingdom, and as vaccine producer India continues to confront the rapid surge.
Heed the warning
UNICEF is a partner in COVAX, the global vaccine equity mechanism, which is set to deliver its 65 millionth dose this week. However, Ms Fore said “it should have been at least its 170 millionth.”
The shortfall will be closer to 190 million doses by the time the G7 meet, she added, and as a deadly second wave of COVID-19 will likely continue to sweep across India and many of its neighbours.
“We have issued repeated warnings of the risks of letting down our guard and leaving low- and middle-income countries without equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. We are concerned that the deadly spike in India is a precursor to what will happen if those warnings remain unheeded,” she said.
India crisis 'not unique'
Although tragic, Ms Fore said the situation in India “is not unique”. Countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Argentina and Brazil have seen an explosion in cases, and health systems are struggling. She also pointed to the threat of the emergence of more deadly or contagious variants if the virus continues to spread unchecked.
While COVAX represents a pathway out of the pandemic, it is undersupplied, in part due to the crisis in India. The country is a leader in vaccine production, but the situation at home has led to a severe reduction in supplies for the solidarity scheme.
“Soaring domestic demand has meant that 140 million doses intended for distribution to low- and middle-income countries through the end of May cannot be accessed by COVAX. Another 50 million doses are likely to be missed in June,” she said.
“This, added to vaccine nationalism, limited production capacity and lack of funding, is why the roll-out of COVID vaccines is so behind schedule.”
Share your doses
Ms Fore said G7 leaders will be meeting in June "with a potential emergency stop-gap measure readily available."
New data analysis indicates that the bloc, together with European Union countries, could donate around 153 million vaccine doses if they shared just 20 per cent of their available supply over June, July and August. Governments would still be able to vaccinate their populations.
“While some G7 members have greater supplies than others, and some have further advanced domestic rollouts, an immediate collective commitment to pool excess supplies and share the burden of responsibility could buttress vulnerable countries against becoming the next global hotspot,” Ms Fore said.
The UNICEF chief stated that “the global vaccination race” will only be won when countries fully fund and supply COVAX, while also supporting vaccine production through Intellectual Property licensing and technology transfers.
“These measures are critical, but they won’t change anything overnight,” she said. “Sharing immediately available excess doses is a minimum, essential and emergency stop-gap measure, and it is needed right now.”