In 2021 our lives are still dominated by Covid-19. Yet hope for many has been provided through the development of several safe and effective vaccines.
The pace of vaccination in many countries, including the UK, has been staggering. However, the rollout has laid bare the level of global health inequality.
So far, almost 2 billion vaccine doses have been given across the world – but most of them in countries with the highest incomes. Most countries in Africa, for example, have vaccinated less than 2% of their population.
The imbalance is shocking, not just because of its moral failings, but also because it will impact our ability to end the pandemic. We know that a global vaccine rollout is essential to get control of the virus, so we need to make that case clear.
Who better to explain why global vaccination is so important than our director, Sir Jeremy Farrar. I asked him to explain exactly why equitable vaccine access is so important, and what we need governments around the world to do to make it happen.
Why do we need fair global vaccine allocation to end Covid-19?
Jeremy was unequivocal:
"The only way to bring the pandemic to a close and improve all of our lives is to make the vaccines available to everybody. I would rather vaccinate some people in every country than all people in some countries.
"Vaccinating a lot of people in a small number of countries will not bring the pandemic to a close and in fact it will encourage the development of new variants that may escape those very vaccines."
Jeremy called on national leaders to work together to make this happen:
"Leadership really matters. We would be better to vaccinate the whole world than only vaccinate my country or your country. That's what leadership needs to come out and say, make the case for it, and then make it happen. Then I believe those leaders would be on the right side of history."
So what can we expect to see happen this year? What are the key themes and trends around the Covid-19 vaccine rollout?
"For me, I think there are two really big issues on the horizon. There is growing tension about equitable access to the vaccines. The vaccines we know are in short supply. So equitable access to the vaccines, I think is one decision point in 2021 that we must get right.
"Then the second one is humility. We are facing nature and nature changes. We don’t have complete control of that. Humanity is very powerful but viruses, evolution and nature are more powerful. We must have humility and have the flexibility, the wit and the scientific background to be able to respond to whatever 2021 throws us."
What needs to happen to see that global rollout become a reality?
Jeremy was optimistic:
"In 2020, the world did come together, coordinated by the World Health Organization. It brought together many of the world’s governments, it brought together many of the world’s philanthropy and it brought together many of the world’s industries and agencies.
"It’s that combination of the world coming together under the auspices of the World Health Organization in order to make fair and equitable access, that brings the pandemic to a close."
Touching on why the Covid-19 virus mutates, Jeremy said:
"Viruses mutate randomly. There is no thinking behind it. It just happens and then those mutations give the virus an advantage. It can more easily go from me to you. It can transmit easier, it can pass to other people. Those viruses will become the dominant strains in a community.
"The best way of preventing that is to reduce the amount of virus in the world. Make the vaccines available globally and prevent those variants happening. It’s much easier to prevent than it is to respond to new variants coming into the population of viruses in the world."
Asked whether there is a case for targeting countries where a new variant emerges with more vaccines, Jeremy replied:
"I would not wish, I think, to target particular parts of the world or particular communities. It’s crucial that we push forward with reducing the amount of virus everywhere.
"There are certain communities, senior people, people with other illnesses that are more vulnerable to getting severe illness and needing hospital, and tragically dying. And it’s very important that we protect those that are at greatest risk of ill health, wherever they are in the world. I think that’s the best way out of the pandemic."
This article was originally published in March 2021, and updated in June 2021.