Vaccine Inequities Persist Globally as Omicron Variant Spreads

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Covid-19

Credit: DirectRelief.org

While the Omicron Covid-19 variant represents the most recent challenge in the Covid-19 pandemic, ongoing issues related to unequal vaccine access worldwide continue to exist. According to Our World in Data, only 6% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.

The emergence of Omicron highlights the consequences of vaccine inequality. For months, health experts have warned that new mutations were likely to form in areas with low vaccination rates. Only 7.3% of Africans are fully vaccinated, compared to 58% in the US and Europe. South Africa has one of the highest vaccinations rates on the continent at 24% but is still struggling. 

A lack of coordination on vaccine shipments, weak health infrastructure and vaccine hesitancy sowed by mistrust and misinformation hinder vaccination efforts even where doses are available.

The omicron variant has now been detected in 30 countries worldwide, as of this publication.

Reacting to the concurrence of the pandemic with preexisting challenges like climate change and conflict, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA is appealing for a record $41 billion to help an estimated 183 million people in need of life-saving assistance. Last year, OCHA requested $35 billion.

Graph showing rapidly increasing Covid-19 cases since November (Johns Hopkins University)

Globally, more than 8 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been administered, and 43% of the world’s population is fully vaccinated.

The vaccine gap is not entirely due to unequal availability. A group of southern African nations, including Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi, have told vaccine manufacturers and donors that they cannot administer the doses they already have and are not currently requesting additional amounts. The backlog is due to a mix of public mistrust and logistical challenges related to effectively delivering the vaccine to rural areas and obstacles for some people to get to vaccination sites.

India has also seen high vaccines hesitancy rates, including about 50% of people who have not completed secondary school, and health care workers have faced violent resistance.

As has been the case throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, countries are reacting in differing ways to this latest variant.

In Europe, some countries have decided on vaccine mandates. Austria is requiring its entire population to receive the vaccine. Greece’s vaccine mandate applies to anyone over 60 years old and is being enforced with monthly fines for those who do not comply. Germany announced a ban on unvaccinated people entering bars, restaurants, theaters, and other non-essential businesses. Slovakia has implemented a two-week lockdown after experiencing one of the highest case rate jumps globally.

Some travel restrictions have been reintroduced in Asia and the Pacific. Japan announced a one-week closure to incoming travelers.  Australia delayed plans to open its borders to migrants and international students into the country until December 15, and the Philippines barred arrivals from seven European countries. Many countries have banned travel to South Africa and other southern African countries.

In the Americas, Mexico has doubled its Covid-19 vaccine supply to over 40 million doses in just six weeks. Mexico has administered over 132 million doses, 51% of the total population, as of November 29. According to Our World in Data, this falls behind many countries in the region, including Brazil, where 63.7% or 135 million people are fully vaccinated. Chile leads South America with close to 85% of its population fully vaccinated, followed by Uruguay at 75%.

In the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago is still fighting the Delta variant, still the world’s dominant strain. Domestic vaccination rates remain low, and public health officials have activated emergency plans to increase ICU capacity.

The US recently saw a 25% jump to 95,000 new cases per day. Driving this trend was the Upper Midwest and Northeast, particularly Michigan, where the state’s public health department reported 18,443 cases since yesterday. Over the past two weeks, Massachusetts has seen an 80% increase in cases. Illinois has seen a 70% increase.

Hospitalization rates are up 8% in the US over the past week and up 20% from the country’s most recent low point on November 10. Michigan accounts for the highest per capita hospitalization rate and has about 4,300 people hospitalized with Covid-19, 75% of whom are unvaccinated, according to the Michigan Health & Hospital Association.

As of the time of publication, confirmed cases of the omicron variant have been reported in California, Minnesota, New York, and Colorado.

The Biden administration announced a new pandemic strategy to confront the worsening situation and increase vaccination rates. It includes offering more vaccination sites that accommodate families, encouraging adults to get booster shots, making at-home tests free and accessible, and enacting new testing protocols for travelers to the US from abroad.

More information about Direct Relief’s response to Covid-19 is available here: https://www.directrelief.org/emergency/coronavirus-outbreak/

Additional reporting was contributed by Noah Smith.

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