The EU-LAC Policy Brief "COVID-19 Vaccines: the global challenge of equitable distribution and access" is the outcome of the EU-LAC Dialogue Sessions that took place on 23-24 March in a digital format. For more information on the event see here.
Forecasted by numerous experts, but anticipated by few institutions, the global COVID-19 pandemic has brought about devastating economic and social impacts: from the first cases in December 2019 to the end of March 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) recorded 126,119,639 COVID-19-related infections and 2,766,831 lives lost globally. In the coming years, governments and decision-makers will have to address the multiple repercussions of this pandemic, linked, for example, to the disruption of the education of the young generation, the overstretching of staff and entire public health systems, increased domestic violence, high food insecurity, massive loss of income for billions of people, and economic contraction.
Amongst developing countries, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) has been the hardest-hit region, both in health and economic terms. The region accounted for ca. 28% of global COVID-19 deaths. Economic growth in the region contracted by 7.7% in 2020 and nearly three million businesses were forced to close due to the pandemic. In addition, the pandemic has deepened the structural inequalities that have already been evident over the past decade in dimensions such as lack of access to social protection, high levels of informality and low productivity.
With the challenge of developing efficient and safe vaccines against the coronavirus having been overcome in record time, the most pressing challenge of the current phase of the pandemic lies in the enormous asymmetry between demand and supply of COVID-19 vaccines. By the end of March 2021, 462,824,374 doses of vaccine have been administered globally. The vast majority of these doses have been produced and distributed in the most developed regions and countries, including the United States, the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan. The slowness of this uneven deployment is due largely to limited global vaccine production, but also to insufficient funding and coordination of distribution, which questions the limitations of global governance in the face of a crisis of this scale.
With the exception of Cuba, which has a strong track record in vaccine development and is currently in the final phase of trials for two of a total of five coronavirus vaccines, the vast majority of Latin American and Caribbean countries lack the scientific and industrial capacities and rely heavily on both vaccine and various other medical supplies imports. The COVID-19 vaccination process has advanced at different speeds and with asymmetric levels of access. As of early March, the region received 37 million doses, enough to vaccinate only 2.8 per cent of the population. At this rate, only four countries can reach "herd immunity" by the end of 2021 or early 2022, according to estimates by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), seven more by 2022 and the majority only in 2023. Beyond the difficult access to vaccines, the slow pace is also due to reduced capacities in terms of logistics, distribution and coverage of health systems.
Due to vaccine shortages, the vaccination campaign within the EU, whose population is currently facing a third wave of the pandemic, has also been unable to progress at the expected pace. In parallel to addressing the pandemic in the region, the EU has, since the beginning of the pandemic, advocated for a multilateral approach that will ensure that everyone in the world has access to vaccines. Together with the Member States, the European Commission is a major contributor to COVAX - the COVID-19 Global Access to Vaccines Facility for equitable and affordable distribution to low- and middle-income countries. Beyond the technical development cooperation provided by various European countries, the European Commission, its Member States and financial institutions such as the European Investment Bank coordinate their efforts as part of "Team Europe", using their political weight and capacities in bodies such as the WHO, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and multilateral consultation spaces such as the G7, to accelerate and scale up vaccine development and manufacturing, and to provide financial mechanisms that enhance countries' capacity to respond to the pandemic.
Behind criticisms of the rise of "health nationalism" and "vaccine geopolitics", there is a prevailing awareness of an unprecedented global interdependence: The later the vaccine reaches the geographically remote parts of the world, the greater the likelihood of the emergence of new variants of the virus that are potentially more immune to the vaccines that have been developed so far. This interdependence can only be met by global solidarity and action for universal access to vaccination, treatment and other necessary medical supplies.
In order to achieve a rapid distribution of vaccines to the world's population, and with priority amongst vulnerable groups and health personnel, the current instruments of regional (within LAC), bi-regional (between LAC and the EU) and international coordination and cooperation deserve to be better exploited and more innovative in the face of a pandemic of this nature (including the declaration of the vaccine as a public good and the more flexible management of intellectual property and production licences), whilst also not missing the opportunity to opt for a better reconstruction, geared towards economic, social and environmental sustainability, including a determined commitment to investments in science, research and technology, the development of logistical capacities and regional value chains.