In a number of wealthy countries, the number of COVID-19 vaccines ordered vastly exceeds what’s needed, while many poorer countries will have to wait – possibly for years – for vaccines to become widely available.
If these rich countries’ orders are fulfilled, what will happen to the excess vaccines? Will they be wasted, traded to the highest bidder, or allocated free or at cost to those poorer countries where COVID-19 is still raging?
Lamenting many countries’ lack of access to vaccines, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has described the world as being “on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure”. Wasting these over-ordered doses would compound this accusation many times over.
Ordering so many vaccines is not in itself immoral. It was completely reasonable that those in charge of procurement in countries such as the UK and Canada ordered a wide portfolio of vaccines. There was no way of knowing which would meet regulatory approval.
The speed of development, as well as the relatively low number of failures, has also been unexpected, producing a good number of potentially viable vaccines in a short space of time. Nonetheless, COVID-19 vaccine development cannot be considered a success until this redistribution issue is resolved.
Assessing the size of the problem
The Duke Global Health Innovation Center in the US is tracking how many vaccine doses each country has ordered. Calculating the number of surplus vaccines requires making some assumptions – for instance that every adult will get vaccinated – so these are quite rough estimates.
The EU has ordered 1.6 billion doses for its adult population of roughly 375 million. As these vaccines require two doses to provide full protection – except for the 200 million single-shot vaccines from Johnson & Johnson – the bloc’s orders will cover just under 900 million people. If all orders are fulfilled, this creates a surplus of around 525 million full vaccinations.
Similarly, the UK has ordered 219 million full vaccinations for its 54 million adults (a surplus of 165 million), while Canada has ordered 188 million full vaccinations for its 32 million adults (an excess of 156 million).
Of course, these surpluses will change as fresh data emerges. New orders will be placed, some may be cancelled, and vaccines still in development could fail during testing.
Note that I’ve focused on Canada, the UK and the EU for a few reasons. While they aren’t the only nations to have over-ordered, this group of countries engages significantly with the WHO and with international development issues more generally. Civil society organisations in the field of global justice are also active in holding these governments to account, so there’s a much greater likelihood that they will develop policies for redistribution.