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Vaccine equity and the COVID-19 response

The world is still reeling from the impact of the COVID19 pandemic. Across the globe, economies are struggling, the health care systems are stretched and tasked and billions of people are yet to be vaccinated. It is not a pretty picture.

The advent of coronavirus vaccines was meant to help curtail the spread of the infection, limit the severity and enable the world to build requisite herd immunity. It has not quite happened as anticipated.

There are many reasons for this and they are not far-fetched. In high-income countries, anti-vaxxers have refused to take the vaccines and some are known to be actively discouraging others from taking the vaccines. This has also precipitated a growing vaccine hesitancy. In low-income countries including Nigeria, we have a different problem. There are just not enough vaccines to go around. Today, less than five per cent of Nigerians have taken any of the vaccines. It is not a pretty picture.

It is clear that the world still needs more coronavirus vaccines, particularly in low-income countries. With the rate of vaccination at under five per cent, certainly, so much more needs to be done to achieve herd immunity.

“Herd immunity”, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “is the indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when a population is immune either through vaccination or immunity developed through a previous infection.” WHO has indicated that it supports achieving ‘herd immunity’ through vaccination.

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Now there are plenty of reasons why this is important. Principally, it reduces the risk of vaccine-resistant variants emerging. This is significant enough a reason to push for vaccines for everyone. For in truth, with COVID-19, no one is safe unless everyone is safe

The lack of vaccines has been blamed severally on manufacturing setbacks, pharmaceutical firms giving priority to people in high-income countries and some cases the laid back approach on the part of governments in many low-income countries. Regardless of the reason, the lack of vaccines has led to widespread coronavirus vaccine deficiency and glaring and widening vaccine inequities. This is not a pretty picture.

Vaccine equity refers to the fair and unbiased access to vaccines by all eligible individuals in a country

Fortunately, there is some good news on the horizon. The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations has reported that vaccine manufacturing is accelerating and worldwide production is expected to exceed 12 billion doses by the end of 2021. This is heartwarming.

In addition, there are other solutions in the works. Take Molnupiravir, an experimental antiviral COVID-19 treatment from Merck, which is currently seeking regulatory approval from the Food and Drug Administration in the US for an emergency use authorisation. The antiviral pill is said to consistently demonstrate promising results against severe COVID-19 and with the expected ease of distribution, it would target countries with low vaccination rates. This too is cheery news.

Similarly, news media have reported that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is set to channel up to $120 million to facilitate speedy deployment of Molnupiravir, following approval. Molnupiravir could prove important to the COVID-19 vulnerable population that need affordable medicines especially with the scarcity of vaccines.

WHO insists that to effectively combat the menace of the coronavirus at least 40 per cent of people in every country need to be vaccinated by the end of 2021, and at least 70 per cent by the first half of 2022. Nigeria, like a host of low-income countries, will find it impossible to meet this target with the scarcity of vaccines. This highlights the challenge of vaccine equity.

Vaccine equity refers to the fair and unbiased access to vaccines by all eligible individuals in a country. For example, because a significant percentage of Nigeria’s population remains unvaccinated, this poses a threat to the country’s chances of achieving herd immunity and recovery.

Of course, vaccine equity makes sense. For if we are all at risk of getting infected by the virus, we should all, at the very least, get an equal chance to be vaccinated. Experts say that vaccine equity ensures that everyone, in particular the vulnerable groups amongst us, have an equal chance to experience good health and safety while ensuring that they too can recover from the harsh impacts of the pandemic as the rest of the world.

Undoubtedly, when vaccines are fairly and equitably distributed, the world has a stronger chance of curbing the spread of the virus and fighting the pandemic. But in the current situation, it is a huge, maybe even impossible, ask.

The government has a huge role to play here. But it can’t do it alone. The private sector must be involved.

It is precisely in recognition of the fact that the private sector has a role to play in achieving vaccine equity, that the Nigeria Solidarity Support Fund (NSSF) is on a strategic mission to mobilise resources for the vaccination of one million Nigerians by 2022. NSSF, a not-for-profit organisation committed to raising resources to effectively complement the national COVID-19 pandemic response in Nigeria, has emerged as an aggregator, building collaborative efforts to help curtail the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The funds raised, by the NSSF, would go towards building vaccine acceptance and accelerating equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics across the country. The focus is on vulnerable members of the community.

Public spirited citizens can support this cause by donating via https://nigeriasolidarityfund.ng/donate/.

The battle against the COVID-19 pandemic will be won. As governments continue to finetune the responses, in partnership with the private sector, the tide will begin to turn. Coronavirus will loss.

Dr. Chinye-Nwoko, General Manager/CEO, Nigeria Solidarity Support Fund (NSSF) writes from Lagos, Nigeria. She can be reached on fchinye-nwoko@nssf.ng

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