Billions of vulnerable people and healthcare workers still waiting for first vaccine doses across low- and middle-income countries
Geneva/New York, 22 July 2021 — Governments and pharmaceutical corporations should not be planning or administering COVID-19 vaccine booster shots anywhere before all healthcare workers and vulnerable people globally have access to vaccination, the international medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said today. With just 1% of people in low-income countries having received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccines out of the more than 3.6 billion doses administered worldwide, and against the backdrop of 4 million deaths and the Delta variant spiraling out of control, MSF said it would be unconscionable to offer people already fully vaccinated another dose before protecting more people with their first. Furthermore, there is no consensus yet among scientists and experts that boosters are needed imminently, therefore making any decision to offer boosters premature.
“Leaders of governments that have already vaccinated well beyond the most vulnerable people need to stop and take a look at this dramatic global imbalance in access to vaccines before moving forward with efforts to offer vaccinated people boosters,” said Dr Carrie Teicher, Director of Programs at MSF-USA. “We cannot let pharmaceutical corporations prematurely dictate the need for boosters in the absence of conclusive data and evidence when we need to be moving mountains now to make sure available doses go to protect healthcare workers and vulnerable people in low- and middle-income countries who remain at grave risk of catching and dying from COVID-19.”
There is a desperate need for COVID-19 vaccine doses in low- and middle-income countries, and the COVAX Facility is struggling to get enough doses to even reach a fraction of their stated vaccination goals. At the same time, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have already entered talks with high-income countries with high rates of vaccination, in particular the EU, to place orders for third doses of the vaccines they produce. With the ongoing crisis of vaccine scarcity, this move represents sheer profiteering on the part of pharmaceutical corporations.
“Wealthy governments shouldn’t be prioritizing giving third doses when much of the developing world hasn’t even yet had the chance to get their first COVID-19 shots,” said Kate Elder, Senior Vaccines Policy Advisor at MSF’s Access Campaign. “We’re in this devastating place of vaccine inequity precisely because pharmaceutical corporations prioritized profits over lives, and the countries where they are mostly based decided to pursue a ‘me first’ approach. Rich governments need to urgently redistribute those doses to the rest of the world. The longer billions of people remain unvaccinated, the more variants will develop that threaten all of us, so this profit-driven and self-centered approach is not only morally questionable, but shortsighted.”
Pfizer-BioNTech has allocated only 11% of their deliveries to date to low- and middle-income countries directly or through COVAX, and Moderna has allocated only 0.3%.* Meanwhile, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna estimate they will earn US$26 billion and $19.2 billion, respectively, in sales from the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021. World Health Organization Director, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, last week called out pharmaceutical greed in a direct message to Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, asking the companies to instead focus on redistributing doses to COVAX. As COVID-19 deaths in Africa surge with a 43% week-on-week rise—and only 1.5% of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated compared with over 50% in some high-income countries—dose redistribution is critical to begin turning the tide against COVID-19 in Africa as well as other low- and middle-income countries.
“In places where we work, such as Brazil, South Africa and Uganda, healthcare workers and the most vulnerable people to COVID-19 are still a far cry from being protected, much less other groups in these countries who are also at risk,” said Dr Teicher. “The longer people everywhere remain completely unvaccinated, the more chances there will be for new variants to take hold and set back the global response.”
MSF is also calling on Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to share their vaccine technology and know-how with producers in low- and middle-income countries so more vaccines can be made in more places across the world, and is calling on the German and US governments to put pressure on these corporations based in their countries to do so. MSF is additionally calling on all governments who have already reached their vulnerable people with vaccination to stop purchasing additional doses and instead make those doses available to WHO and COVAX for equitable global distribution, including those produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna; and for all governments to support the ‘TRIPS Waiver’ proposal to suspend monopolies on all COVID-19 medical tools during the pandemic.
*Calculations based on data from AirFinity (15 July 2021)