In just over a year, ten billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered globally, in what has become the largest vaccination program in history.
Many nations began rolling out vaccines in late 2020 and early 2021, and since then more than 60% of the world’s population – 4.8 billion people – have received at least one dose of one of more than 20 different COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved by nations for use worldwide.
“The world has never seen such rapid upscaling of a new life-saving technology,” said Amanda Glassman, executive vice president of the Center for Global Development in Washington DC. “The ongoing efforts are inspiring.”
But – as researchers warned last year, when the first one billion doses had been administered – there are still huge inequalities in access, with only 5.5% of the population in low-income countries receiving two doses.
In contrast, many of the world’s high and middle income nations are now pushing ahead with third- or even fourth-dose programs (see ‘The Road to Ten Billion’), where these boosters currently account for about a third of all COVID-19 vaccine doses administered every day worldwide.
Some scientists warn that this continuing inequality increases the risk of new SARS-CoV-2 variants emerging from poorly vaccinated populations.
“As Africans, the real importance of reaching ten billion administered vaccines is the extreme inequality that exists in the vaccine distribution between the global north and the global south,” said Mosoka Fallah, founder of Refuge Place International, a public health organization headquartered in Bassa City. Liberia. “Until we correct this inequality, the world will continue to see new variations.”
At present, only 16% of people across the African continent have received just one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Wealthy nations have donated excess vaccine doses to low-income nations, but Fallah says that if patents were to be waived on existing vaccines – an issue currently under discussion at the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland – it would allow more countries to make their own vaccines, which increases the supply.
Despite these problems and the challenges of distribution, reaching the milestone of ten billion doses is “an unprecedented global moment,” said Soumya Swaminathan, chief researcher at the World Health Organization, based in Geneva. “It is a huge scientific achievement that ten billion doses of vaccines for a new pathogen were developed in two years from its identification.”