The rich-poor divide; global COVID-19 vaccine inequality

Mohamed Eltayeb 

 More than 848 million doses have been administered worldwide, allowing for 2.4% of the global population to be fully vaccinated. Despite several countries rolling out accelerated vaccination campaigns, there remains an inequality in global vaccine distribution. Under current predictions, many more disadvantaged countries will have to wait several years to receive vaccines, consequently prolonging the pandemic. 

“Vaccine nationalism”

Vaccine nationalism was a term coined during the pandemic to describe when countries would sign agreements with pharmaceutical companies to supply their own populations with vaccines before they were made available for other countries. Instead of a collective response to the pandemic, wealthy countries like the US and the United Kingdom paid billions of dollars to secure vaccines before they hit the market.

In February of this year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres scrutinized the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, calling it uneven and unfair. “Just 10 countries have administered 75 per cent of all COVID-19 vaccines. Meanwhile, more than 130 countries have not received a single dose. Those affected by conflict and insecurity are at particular risk of being left behind”, he said. However, it came to nobody’s surprise that solving the pandemic would be challenging since it would require a collective effort by both developed and emerging countries. That joint effort has been tasked as the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access initiative (COVAX), a global action aimed at providing equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.


The UN and its partners have designed COVAX to ensure vaccines are shared fairly among all nations, wealthy and impoverished. The set goal for the program is to deliver more than two billion doses to people in 190 countries in less than a year, warranting that the worlds 92 lower-income economies receive access to the vaccine at the same rate as the 98 higher-income economies. Unfortunately, COVAX’s mission has failed so far. According to the latest data from the Duke Global Health Innovation Center Launch and Scale Speedometer, which monitors COVID-19 vaccine purchases, it was concluded that there would not be enough vaccine doses to cover the world’s population until at least 2023 even with programs like COVAX.

The reason is because of the hoarding of vaccinations. High-income countries already own more than half of all global doses purchased; the wealthiest 27 countries have 40% of vaccinations despite only carrying 11% of the world’s population.


If the visual of the map isn’t convincing enough to illustrate the significant disparities, then perhaps some data will. The United States, which has a population of 331 million, has administered 198 million doses so far. In the last week, an average of 3.35 million doses per day was issued. Compared to the continents of South America, Africa and Asia, which total up to more than half of the world’s population, the US still has an incomparable vaccine dose rate.


Africa is the least vaccinated; only 36 African countries have received doses through the COVAX program, but only three nations have immunised more than 1 per cent of their populations. The World Health Organization has stated that there are concerns that countries that received initial shipments under COVAX could soon be running out of doses. According to the World Bank, to stop the virus from spreading in Africa, an estimated 12 billion dollars is needed.

The rich-poor divide

Life returning to normal is variant on where you are; for communities in higher-income economies, the end of social distancing could be approaching. Yet, for communities in lower-income economies, returning to normal is up to the choices of western leaders like US President Biden. This week, over 100 Nobel laureates and 75 former world leaders called on Biden to suspend vaccine patents. If the patent is suspended, developing countries would have access to the information, allowing them to produce the vaccines independently, prompting a return to normal for the entire world.

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