Kazakhstan offers a blueprint for shrinking the Covid-19 vaccine gap
In his address at the General Debates of this week’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev underscored the urgency of ensuring that the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is a global one marked by multilateral cooperation and international solidarity. As Tokayev highlighted, unless concerted action is taken, there is the risk that decades of development progress will be lost in the wake of the public health crisis and that the fissure will widen between wealthy “vaccinated” economies and emerging “unvaccinated” markets. “We must ‘build back’ a more equitable, sustainable, and humane world”, Tokayev emphasized at the UN summit. “We must begin with universal and fair access to vaccines. This matter must be resolved as a matter of global ethics and solidarity.”
The Kazakh president was far from the only world leader to spotlight the vaccine inequity which threatens to prolong the pandemic, cost countless lives and worsen global inequality; indeed, the subject has emerged as a clear theme at this year’s UNGA. Tokayev, however, spoke from a unique perspective when he called for expanded global access to vaccines: Kazakhstan is among the first ten countries in the world to develop its own vaccine.
The Kazakh-produced jab, dubbed QazVac, has been part of Kazakhstan’s vaccine rollout since April, while Nur-Sultan has already delivered doses abroad as humanitarian aid. In his UNGA speech, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev underlined that Nur-Sultan stands ready to share doses of QazVac and of two other vaccines which Kazakhstan has in development, either bilaterally or through the international COVAX facility.
Recent Phase III data suggesting that the antibodies produced by QazVac are capable of neutralizing multiple different strands of the coronavirus, including the Delta variant which is dominant in many countries, raises hopes that the vaccine could prove a valuable addition to a global immunization drive that has raced ahead in some regions while others have been left behind.
Indeed, while Kazakhstan’s homegrown vaccine has helped the country vaccinate 60% of the eligible population and turn the corner on the disease’s latest wave, countless countries have not been so fortunate. Over 75% of coronavirus vaccines administered to date have been given out in just 10 countries. While vaccine rates in wealthy countries in Europe have soared in recent months—Portugal is now the country with the world’s highest inoculation rate, with a startling 84% of its 10 million strong population now fully vaccinated—a mere 3% of citizens in the world’s poorest countries have received the lifesaving jab.
As Tokayev and other leaders have pointed out this week at the UN, efforts to close this striking vaccine access gap have not gone far enough. “It is an indictment on humanity”, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa decried, “that more than 82% of the world’s vaccine doses have been acquired by wealthy countries, while less than one percent has gone to low-income countries.”
Promised help from high-income countries has been slow to materialize. According to the World Health Organization, only 15% of promised vaccine donations have been delivered. In June, the G7 countries pledged to donate 870 million doses to the COVAX scheme, yet only 100 million have been released so far—and some wealthy countries, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, have even dipped into the meagre COVAX supply for their own populations. U.S. President Joe Biden announced this week at the UNGA that his administration plans to donate an additional 500 million doses abroad, on top of existing aid plans, but experts have already questioned whether the plan will deliver results quickly enough, given that less than a third of the doses which Washington plans to donate are expected to be shipped out this year.
A number of heads of state used their UNGA speeches to call for pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna—whose jabs have made up the backbone of many developed countries’ vaccination drives—to temporarily waive their intellectual property rights in order to allow more countries, especially low- and middle-income countries, to produce their vaccines. The pharma giants have proven recalcitrant, and have continued to prioritize orders from wealthy countries—according to a recent report by human rights group Amnesty International, 98% of all Pfizer-BioNTech doses have been allocated to high- and upper-middle-income countries.
World leaders and international health organizations are likely to continue putting pressure on these manufacturers and on the world’s wealthiest countries to follow through on their pledges to share their ample supply of vaccine doses. Tokayev’s UN speech, however, offers another option for beginning to chip away at the expanding gap in vaccine access. Kazakhstan is not the only middle-income country to develop its own vaccine. Cuba, for example, became the first Latin American country to successfully develop a Covid-19 inoculation when the island country’s regulator approved the homegrown Abdala vaccine in July, and Havana agreed earlier this week to provide Vietnam with 10 million doses of the Cuban inoculation. Thailand has a number of vaccine candidates in trials, with one releasing encouraging Phase I trial results in August. These vaccines could prove vital in closing the vaccination gap and ensuring a truly global recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.