COVID-19 vaccines are making their way around the world, but global immunity is still far off

COVID-19 vaccines are making their way around the world, but global immunity is still far off

January 7, 2021
  • Mass vaccination campaigns are being rolled out around the world as governments look for ways to contain the spread of COVID-19.
  • Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca, Sputnik V, and Sinopharm are among the authorized vaccines being distributed in multiple countries.
  • But Russia, India, and China have been criticized for rushing their vaccine approval processes, and some people remain skeptical about getting inoculated.
  • As wealthier nations expand their immunization efforts, many developing countries struggling with the pandemic are still waiting for their shots.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Mobile freezers brought onto boats and carried by motorbikes — this is what it takes to deliver measles and Ebola vaccines to remote parts of Congo. 

The efforts were essential to control those outbreaks, and they can teach us lessons on how to bring the new COVID-19 vaccines to billions of people living in isolated areas of the world. 

"There's lots of rivers, there's lots of jungles, there's mountains, and there's very few paved roads," said John Johnson, an emergency coordinator with Doctors Without Borders.

But delivery of coronavirus shots to these places is still months, if not years, away. Despite record levels of infections, many developing countries can't afford to secure vaccines right now and will have to wait on aid.

Meanwhile, richer nations are well underway. 

Russia's Sputnik V vaccine is making its way around the world. 

Russia was the first country to give approval to a human vaccine. Now it's close to giving the green light to one for domestic animals susceptible to contracting the virus from humans.

But the country's handling of these efforts has been widely criticized. Its coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, received regulatory approval in August, when it had only been tested on a few dozen people.

In December, Russia launched a mass vaccination campaign before full trials had finished.

"I think only time will tell, and that's it," said nurse Natalia Shvekova. "Well, I don't know, but I believe the more people get vaccinated, the better it will be for our health."

But that isn't a popular view among Russians. Recent polls have found that more than half of the country doesn't plan on getting the vaccine, at least not until there's more information.

Still, doses of Sputnik V are making their way around the world. Just before Christmas, Argentina became the third country to approve the treatment, after Russia and Belarus.

Governments are anxious to gain some sort of control over the pandemic, and it turns out Sputnik V is much cheaper than the vaccines made by Russia's Western rivals.

Distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has resulted in long lines around the world.

The UK was the first to approve Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine for emergency use. 

Canada, the US, and the European Union quickly followed suit.

"It is a significant step forward in our fight against this pandemic, which is causing suffering and hardship for so many people, not just in Europe," said Emer Cooke, executive director of the European Medicines Agency.

All over the world, distribution of the Pfizer vaccine is resulting in long lines like the ones often seen for COVID tests, as well as makeshift clinics like the ones used for COVID patients.

Many felt relief.

"It's a day of much excitement, seeing this helicopter transporting hope," the president of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, said.

Maria Irene Ramirez, a nurse in Mexico, added, "It's the best gift in 2020 I could have gotten."

But some are still skeptical.  

"I am not willing to inject myself with something that I don't know where it was made, what's in it, who touched, who didn't touch it," Jerusalem resident Avishai Atias shared.

The US is off to a slow start vaccinating Americans while other countries are working on their own vaccines.

In the US, mistrust of vaccines has gradually declined.

The Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use authorization to both Pfizer's treatment and a second one developed by Moderna, widening the reach of the country's immunization effort.

But the nation with the most infections in the world is off to a slower than expected start. 20 million Americans were supposed to get a shot by the end of 2020. Only about 3 million did.

Back in the UK, a second vaccine by Oxford-AstraZeneca was also approved just before the new year.

Unlike Pfizer's, it doesn't need to be stored in frigid temperatures — making it much easier to transport and store.

India has since given the Oxford shot a green light as well, manufacturing a local version called Covishield.

"It is free across the country," said Indian health minister Harsh Vardhan.

India also approved its own government-backed vaccine called Covaxin. But many health experts worry about Covaxin's missing efficacy data, calling the authorization rushed. 

China has heard similar critiques about its vaccination programs. Since the summer, it's been administering unproven, homegrown vaccines to parts of its population.

Among these is the CoronaVac, made by the company Sinovac.

It's already been used on some high-risk groups in China, while being tested in Brazil, Chile, Turkey, and Indonesia. 

The Chinese state-owned company Sinopharm also has vaccines in development. 

Despite a lack of transparency around trial data, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have been the first two countries to approve of a Sinopharm vaccine.

"It was my duty as a Bahraini female and as a doctor as well to take this vaccine, and to be one of the pioneers to take it," said resident Mai Bobshet.

It's impossible to ignore the role of politics in the vaccine rollout.

Much of the story about whose shots are approved where is turning out to be a political one.

In Hungary, the dilemma is noticeable. Even though the country is part of the European Union, and Pfizer's vaccine is already being rolled out, the government is still considering more doses from China and Russia.

"Countries are playing, and our leaders or politicians are playing, a game," said Balazs Rekassy, health policy advisor to the mayor of Budapest. "Which vaccine can they get first? Hungary is in a special situation, because it is in the middle from East and West."

But for the coronavirus, there is no distinction between East and West.

And those with resources will need to make sure the rest of the world can get its shots, too.

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