Rebecca Anne Proctor
DUBAI: As wealthy countries rush to immunize their populations against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), poorer nations are being left behind with limited, sporadic and often delayed access to vaccines. Experts warn such inequality risks prolonging the pandemic.
In February, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called this uneven distribution of vaccines “wildly unfair,” identifying vaccine equity as “the biggest moral test before the global community.”
Few regions of the world are experiencing starker inequality in this regard than the Middle East. While Israel and the GCC countries race ahead, others like Lebanon and Palestine have only just received their first doses.
Their war-torn neighbor Syria recently received a shipment of vaccines from the UAE, while Yemen got its first batch at the end of March through the COVAX facility, the global mechanism for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.
However, as of mid-April, Lebanon had administered just 268,578 doses. Assuming every person needs two shots, this means a mere two percent of the population has been vaccinated. Likewise, Yemen’s 360,000 doses of Oxford/AstraZeneca have barely put a dent in its 30 million-strong population.
By contrast, Israel says almost 80 percent of its 9 million residents have received their first shot, while the UAE says more than half its population has been vaccinated.
On April 9, the World Health Organization (WHO) said vaccination campaigns had now begun in 194 countries but were yet to commence in 26 others. Of those, seven have now received vaccines and five should receive theirs in the coming days.
COVAX — a global initiative led by UNICEF, Gavi the Vaccine Alliance, the WHO, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations — has been instrumental in delivering vaccines to the developing world.
In March, the first shipment of EU-funded vaccines from the COVAX facility arrived in Jordan, with a second shipment expected to reach the country in April.
Palestine also received its first 61,400 doses from COVAX in March, which it administered to health workers and at-risk individuals in the West Bank. An additional 21,300 doses were shipped to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
“UNICEF, on behalf of the COVAX facility, has so far delivered more than 3 million doses of COVID vaccines to 10 countries in the Middle East and North Africa,” Ted Chaiban, UNICEF’s MENA region director, said on April 1.
“The COVAX facility has been able to deliver vaccines to 10 countries including Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the State of Palestine, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen.”
However, vast discrepancies continue to mar the global COVAX effort. “We know that the vaccines delivered so far are far, far from enough,” said Chaiban, citing struggles with high global demand and manufacturing.
“These delays do impact the size and volume of shipments to many countries including here in this region. And they do mean that many frontline workers have not been reached with vaccination efforts.”
Robert Mardini, director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, put it more bluntly when he said: “The worst could be yet to come.”
Speaking at the recent World Immunization and Logistics Summit hosted by the Abu Dhabi-based Hope Consortium, a group established to deliver billions of COVID-19 doses by the end of 2021, Mardini said getting shots to those in need, especially those in conflict zones, is essential to ending the pandemic.
If the Middle East is to have some semblance of vaccine equity by the end of 2021, experts say richer countries must help the less fortunate. Localizing the production of vaccines may also become necessary to ensure adequate supplies across the region.
Saudi Arabia, which held the G20 presidency in 2020, last year pledged $150 million to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation, $150 million to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations, and $200 million to other regional and global programs.
In early April, the UAE’s state-run news agency WAM reported that the local Red Crescent had delivered COVID-19 vaccines to vulnerable people in Syria. It did not specify how many vaccines nor which brand.
“The UAE have consistently been a generous foreign aid donor and they know that protecting their own people from COVID-19 won’t work without seeking ways to help protect people in other countries at the same time,” Mark Suzman, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told Arab News. “Ending the pandemic means ending it everywhere.”
Notably, the Abu Dhabi-based artificial intelligence company G42 has teamed up with China’s Sinopharm CNBG to launch a rebranded version of the Sinopharm vaccine called Hayat-Vax — potentially the first by an Arab country. If the UAE-made vaccine proves effective, it could offer developing countries a valuable supply line, especially if vaccinations are required annually.
The vaccine’s Arabic name Hayat — which means life — could make it more appealing to a Middle East’s public that is skeptical of China’s inoculation offerings. (On April 21, Abu Dhabi approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Sinopharm had been the only available shot in the UAE capital for the general public since December 2020.)
If the UAE could manufacture its own vaccines, so could other regional players in due course. Morocco, for instance, has seen its pharmaceutical industry blossom in recent years, making it a potential leader in the African and Mediterranean marketplace.
Even if manufacturing could be bolstered, rapid distribution to the world’s extremities would, however, remain an obstacle. “The challenge is huge, it is a global challenge,” Robert Sutton, head of Abu Dhabi Ports’ Logistics Cluster, told Arab News.
“Regionally, the only way we are going to be able to address that challenge is by working together and working in partnership and leveraging various experts and the supply chain infrastructure to cross the finish line together.”
Referring to Abu Dhabi’s first integrated trade, logistics, industrial and free zone, Sutton said: “We have handled over 20 million vaccines through the KIZAD hub to 26 countries. The KIZAD hub does not exist just for the UAE alone — it very much recognizes its role in supporting the region and in supporting not only the Middle East but the wider Africa, CIS and Asia regions as well.
“There are 3.6 billion people within one to six hours on a plane from Abu Dhabi, and we have a responsibility and the capability to be able to support that vaccination drive and their programs. I think we have been playing a pivotal role in ensuring that vaccines get delivered from the UAE to other countries in need.”
If there is one thing that the pandemic has heightened in the world’s collective consciousness, it is the need for a solution that is inclusive and global in scope. The general consensus among public-health experts is that a “me first” approach will simply not work.
“We call for vaccine nationalism to end, because in the end we either win together or we lose together,” UNICEF’s Chaiban said.
“No one is safe until everyone is safe.”