The IRC has made an urgent call to wealthy nations to redouble their support for new vaccine delivery mechanisms that can reach the most vulnerable populations, as the Delta variant reaches 124 countries – including some of the world’s toughest crisis contexts – posing a growing and serious risk to global public health.
From Asia to Africa to Latin America, countries are suffering from record COVID-19 caseloads and deaths, even as wealthier nations with high vaccination rates let their guards down. As of July 2021, COVAX had shipped just 138 million vaccines to participants in the COVAX Facility, resulting in vastly insufficient coverage, far below initial targets, and the goal of achieving 20% vaccination coverage in low-income countries. Thus far, less than 2% of Africans have received a vaccination dose. Vaccine delivery has been hampered in crisis-affected countries, where fragile health systems are unable to meet growing needs, have been decimated by conflict and underinvestment, and in some cases can’t or won’t reach refugee and displaced populations. COVAX is estimated to reach just 6% of the eligible population in IRC’s 20 Watchlist countries, which are home to 85% of the world’s population in need of humanitarian assistance. Now, these countries are battling a more deadly and transmissible variant, without sufficient vaccine coverage to protect their populations.
Spikes in cases due to the Delta variant have been reported in the following contexts:
17 countries in Africa have reported the Delta variant as the continent records an increase in cases (21%) and deaths (16%) when compared to the previous month as testing remains worryingly low. Africa is facing a third wave that is far outpacing vaccinations and overwhelming health systems. The Delta variant is causing the worst wave of COVID seen thus far on the continent.
The Delta variant is leading to a spike in cases in crisis-affected countries. In the month to July 25th, there has been a significant increase in cases in Zimbabwe (116%), Thailand (110%), Myanmar (78%), Liberia (60%), Bangladesh (33%), and Afghanistan (29%), and concerning test positivity rates in Mexico (37%), Iraq (22%), Colombia (22%), Zimbabwe (20%) and Democratic Republic of Congo (17%).
The Delta variant has been detected in a majority of new cases in recent months in countries such as Afghanistan (60%), the Democratic Republic of Congo (79%), Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Uganda (97%). Uganda, the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, has included refugees in the national vaccines program, but the country has run out of vaccine stock. In Kenya, a test positivity rate of 12.2% is increasing fears a fourth wave is coming.
In addition to the Delta variant, the Lambda variant is of particular concern for Latin America. As of mid-June, it accounts for 82% of new infections in Peru and has reportedly spread to 29 countries.
COVAX is negotiating with new vaccine suppliers and expects to have 1.9 billion doses available for participating countries towards the end of the year, but this is insufficient as new variants are already driving surging caseloads in the Global South. Even if supply issues are overcome, COVAX is only intended to help countries reach 10-50% of their populations with vaccines, far short of the levels that have made a difference in the US, UK and other richer countries.
An additional exacerbating factor in crisis-affected countries is the exclusion of refugees and displaced populations from vaccination plans. According to the International Organization for Migration, 40% of 152 countries analyzed do not include refugees or are unclear about inclusion of refugees in their vaccination plans.
David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said: “The race between vaccines and the variants is being lost in poorer countries while richer countries debate vaccine hesitancy. This is dangerous as well as immoral. We are beyond the time for urgent action to make global vaccination a truly global effort, including displaced and underserved populations in national vaccination plans. Now is the time for a three-pronged effort. First, the IRC echoes the recommendations of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, calling on the US and other G7 nations to redouble their support and vaccine sharing for the COVAX facility, together with a serious boost in funding to frontline actors to reach as many arms as rapidly and equitably as possible. Vaccines should be a global public good provided free of charge to those in greatest need. The more inequity there is between high and low-income contexts, the greater the global danger. Second, promote effective distribution of vaccines within these low-income countries – ensuring the inclusion of refugee and displaced communities, and using front-line NGO responders to reach all communities. And lastly, address the growing needs of the world’s most vulnerable with education, cash, food security, and protection assistance. When communities struggle with rising humanitarian need and falling supplies and resources, a sustained and effective global public health response will be impossible.”
About the IRC
The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and over 20 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities.