Wealthier countries should stop “hoarding” COVID-19 vaccines, Melinda Gates said in a pre-recorded interview with Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf during the publication’s Global Boardroom event.
According to Gates, countries should vaccinate their population “up to a point,” and then send both money and extra supplies out to countries in need, especially as some low-income nations “can’t even vaccinate their healthcare workers.”
“You don’t need to vaccinate all the way down, say, to your teen population … before you send out vaccine doses to Covax,” Gates said. Covax is the World Health Organization’s campaign that was created to increase “equitable access” to the COVID-19 vaccines.
Currently, almost 32% of the US is fully vaccinated, while a little over 44% have received at least one shot, according to data from the CDC. Almost 41% of the US population at or older than 18-years-old is fully vaccinated.
Now, figures like President Joe Biden are under pressure to donate vaccine doses to India, which is currently seeing overrun hospitals and record-setting COVID-19 cases. About 9.4% of India’s population is vaccinated, while only 2.1% are fully inoculated. Adults in India are currently eligible for the vaccine, but many states don’t have enough doses to meet these demands, according to a report from BBC.
Now, Gates predicts the US could begin donating vaccines.
“I think the US government is looking at their supply of vaccines and deciding, okay how much of it should we do through Covax, how much should we do bilaterally,” Gates said. “I think you’re going to start to see some movement there.”
Gates acknowledges that this “vaccine hoarding” in part comes from manufacturing issues like the location of the manufacturer, bottlenecks, and lack of materials. To combat this issue, Gates says vaccine production should take place in more locations around the world.
Bill Gates – who has been accused of withholding vaccine formulas – previously said that complications with increased vaccine production could be attributed to difficulties related to creating vaccines in untested facilities (more so than issues with intellectual property laws that could be preventing vaccine formulas from being shared).
“There are only so many vaccine factories in the world, and people are very serious about the safety of vaccines,” Gates said in an interview with SkyNews. “The thing that’s holding things back in this case isn’t intellectual property. It’s not like there’s some idle vaccine factory with regulatory approval that makes magically safe vaccines. You’ve gotta do the trials on these things. And every manufacturing process has to be looked at in a very careful way.”
The risk is that, even if a few countries fully vaccinate themselves, the virus can still spread elsewhere.
Allowing it to spread risks it mutating into a more dangerous variants that could resist existing vaccines and prolong the pandemic around the world.
Professor Ken Shadlen, professor of Development Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science described this worry in an interview with Insider.
He pointed to “concern that if we don’t distribute the vaccine in a globally more equal way it’s going to potentially undermine the health benefits of all that we’re doing with lockdowns and vaccines.”
He said that the emergence of a vaccine-conquering variant is by no means guaranteed, but that “it would take a lot of confidence to believe that it’s not going to, if it keeps spreading.”
“We’re gambling and it’s a bit of a race.”
Dr. Michael Osterholm, another expert, agreed with the concerns. He is an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and also advised President Joe Biden on the coronavirus during his transition.
He told Insider that vaccine equality should already be a “top priority” to save lives around the world.
He said that one of the biggest risks to ending the pandemic is “largely uncontrolled transmission in the low-and-middle-income countries,” even if wealthier nations have finished their vaccine drives.
He said: “We have got to have an immediate international plan to vaccinate the world as quickly as possible.”
The WHO is warning the pandemic won’t end until outbreaks end everywhere. Tedros said in February: “This is not a matter of charity. It’s a matter of epidemiology.”
Already fighting mutant strains
Variants of the virus are causing widespread alarm and changing the course of the pandemic.
A more-contagious strain first identified in the UK was blamed for surges across Europe, and in the US the CDC warned that it could become the dominant strain.
Some countries’ responses are already changing.
The UK has one of the most successful vaccination programs in the world – almost a third of the population has received at least one dose. There are ambitious plans to end all restrictions before the end of June.
But officials warn that mutations could harm that progress: politicians say the UK is in a “race against evolution.”
The UK is chasing down cases of variants, closely tracking small outbreaks of strains first found in South Africa and Brazil.
Most countries don’t have the resources to react as fast, and it only takes a few mistakes for a new strain to take hold.
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich School of Medicine, noted that some now argue that lockdowns “should continue for longer than we might think” because of the risk from variants.
He noted that the evidence for that is not yet conclusive.
Its first shots were delivered to Ghana in late February, with shots since arriving in countries like Senegal, Sudan, and Kenya.
But it has been battling underfunding and the problems of limited supply. Even with money to buy doses, COVAX has to contend with the reality that wealthy countries have already reserved almost all supplies for the near future.
The WHO has accused wealthy countries of hoarding doses and driving up prices, frustrating its progress.
That’s adding to the issues created by the shortage of supply globally, leaving it harder for poorer countries to get vaccines and leaving huge populations with little protection.
There’s another big problem with COVAX: Its aims are the “bare minimum,” as Shadlen put it.
It aims to vaccinate around 20% of the populations of 92 countries by the end of the year, far short of the ambitions of the US and others.
Osterholm described COVAX as “a start.” But, he said, “COVAX has never been designed to deliver a vaccine to the entire world in short order.”
“Now we have new data, new information about this thing called variants, which is a game changer. So I think that we’re in a new place. And COVAX to me, while it’s a very positive development, it’s old thinking.”
Instead he called for a plan that involves “everyone, whether it’s Russia or China, or the United States or Europe. We all have the same interest here.”
Tamaryn Nelson, a health advisor to Amnesty International, put it bluntly to Insider: “No one is safe until everyone is safe.”
A big unknown
The key factor is how much risk larger countries are willing to tolerate. Osterholm, the expert who advised Biden, said that there is no way of knowing ahead of time if a new, scary variant will appear.
Researchers are doing what they can to counter this, working on booster on booster shots to fight specific variants. But the development takes time and money, and is itself not guaranteed to work.
The safer option is to get rid of the virus as widely as possible.
Osterholm said: “I always remind people we are a year into this pandemic, but the variants of concern have only been around for about three months.”
“All this has happened in three months: What’s it going to be like three to six months from now?”
“We’re in a chess match with this virus right now. It’s making moves we’ve never seen before.”