IN THE long term, the future is looking bright. Several coronavirus vaccines are proving far more effective than we dared hope, and while some aren’t as effective against new variants, most do still work.
In the short term, however, things may get worse before they get better. Despite many countries, including the UK, starting to return to “normality” with the relaxing of restrictions, we now have another dangerous new variant – B.1.617.2, first detected in India – to contend with. It might be even better at spreading than the B.1.1.7 variant from the UK.
Even the UK, which has given at least one vaccine dose to more than half its adult population, may not have vaccinated enough people to prevent another wave of cases, although it has, hopefully, vaccinated enough vulnerable people to prevent another major wave of hospitalisations and deaths. Most countries are in a much worse position. Globally, just 9 per cent of people have had at least one dose, and in lower-income countries the proportion is closer to zero.
Many people will die because higher-income countries are vaccinating their entire populations rather than sharing doses once they have vaccinated the most vulnerable. Worse, some have stockpiles of unused doses building up. The US has an estimated 70 million doses sitting on shelves, which is more than the international initiative for distributing vaccines fairly, COVAX, has distributed to all the countries in the scheme so far.
“A variant that evades existing vaccines will cost a lot more than vaccinating the world”
Experts say that as manufacturing rapidly ramps up, the US could share its excess now without any risk of running out. As New Scientist went to press, President Joe Biden had promised to send 20 million vaccine doses abroad.
Higher-income countries need to share more money too. Another $45 billion or so is needed to achieve global vaccination – small change compared with the $5 to 10 trillion cost of the pandemic. This money isn’t charity. Ensuring the whole world is vaccinated is the best way to reduce the risk of further dangerous variants emerging. A variant that evades existing vaccines will cost a lot more than $45 billion, quite apart from the human toll.