On Thursday, the planet reached an historic landmark, surpassing two billion recorded doses of the COVID-19 vaccine administered in 215 countries. I’ve been in public health for 30 years and have never seen anything quite like it—not even the widely successful smallpox or polio vaccination campaigns.
After all, the quickest we’ve ever produced a vaccine before this was in nine years, for mumps.
Scientists started working on COVID-19 vaccines in January 2020, almost immediately after cases were reported in Wuhan. Chinese scientists fully sequenced the novel coronavirus within two weeks. And they shared it worldwide. COVID-19 vaccines entered phase 3 clinical trials in six months, not the typical years. Vaccines were mass-produced even before proven safe and efficacious—they had to be, to save time. And by Dec. 11, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, a novel mRNA technology never before used in human history.
The very first dose outside a trial was given to Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old British grandmother, on Dec. 8, 2021. Six months later, we’re at the two billion mark.
Truth is, the world was no match for SARS-CoV-2, a wily virus that spread asymptomatically, aerosolized, and yielded a high death rate. No matter what we tried—testing and tracing, distancing, masking—we ultimately failed. Even shuttering entire cities didn’t stop the virus, which came roaring back.
But scientific ingenuity, and vast government investment—especially Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, truth be told—are now poised to defeat the virus. High-income countries are returning to normal. Throughout the pandemic, cases surged after every busy holiday travel weekend, but this Memorial Day seems like it will be different. Half of U.S. adults are vaccinated, and cases are plummeting daily. By July 4, 70 percent of the adult U.S. population could be vaccinated, and by Labor Day we may be nearly back to normal.
This is jaw-dropping stuff, and cause for celebration, with scientists the heroes of the story. But the hero worship is—deservedly—stronger in some parts of the world than others.
Remember, this is a worldwide pandemic. You’ve heard global health leaders talk about the catastrophic moral failure of vaccine inequity. And it’s true. Of the two billion doses, 75 percent have been administered in 10 countries, with China, the U.S., and India taking the lion’s share. According to AFP, the world’s poorest countries have administered only 0.3 percent of doses; 6 poor countries haven’t given a single shot.
Overall, Africa has given only 2.5 doses per 100 people, against 87 in the U.S. and 47 in Europe.
I’m not the first to point out that vaccine inequity isn’t just a moral failure—it could come back to bite us. With widely circulating virus (in India, Latin America, and possibly Africa as we speak) mutations will occur, making the virus more transmissible, pathogenic, or even capable of evading current vaccine technology. With global travel rebounding, dangerous variants will reseed in the U.S. And then there is the IMF prediction that if vaccine distribution remains so skewed, it could cost the global economy $9 trillion through 2025, most of the losses occurring in high-income countries.
So far, high-income countries have hoarded vaccines and bought up much of the entire world’s supply. But there is reason to think we have the wherewithal—and, maybe, the political will—to vaccinate the world.
Just hours after the planet eclipsed two billion doses administered, President Joe Biden made an important start: He pledged 80 million COVID-19 vaccine doses internationally by the end of June without expectation of political favors—a not-so-veiled criticism of China and Russia, which have curried geostrategic advantages in exchange for life-saving vaccines. He’s sharing 25 million surplus doses first, according to the White House.
Importantly, the administration also announced it was lifting restrictions under the Defense Production Act that gave U.S. producers priority access to vaccine equipment and supplies. This will enable major manufacturers like the Serum Institute of India to buy vital raw materials for vaccine production that have been vanishingly scarce. Activists and vaccine suppliers to low-income countries had been critical of the prolonged invocation of the Defense Production Act, and Biden’s slowness to repeal its restrictions.
Biden’s unselfishly giving most doses to COVAX—a global initiative to procure and equitably allocate vaccines, which is a huge win for WHO and GAVI (the Vaccine Alliance). Thus far, COVAX has failed to secure enough doses even for its modest goal of covering 20 percent of lower-income country populations this year. President Biden is heading for the G-7 summit in England next week, where he should lobby American allies to donate much more through COVAX.
The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, World Trade Organization, and WHO recently offered a blueprint to vaccinate at least 40 percent of the world by year’s end, and reach 60 percent vaccination by the middle of next year. That would virtually end the pandemic. Its $50 billion price is the world’s greatest bargain from an economic—much less human —perspective, with financial benefits worth 180 times this amount.
The WHO didn’t declare a pandemic until March 11, 2020. The world has suffered immeasurably since then, and some of the blame surely falls on public-health officials who—with an assist or worse from politicians—made key mistakes at key moments. Millions of lives have been lost, and even now, Americans and people across the world are dying, sometimes—thanks to vaccine hesitancy—even when they have access to shots.
But it was almost unimaginable last March to think we would have a safe and effective vaccine even within several years. Now, there are more than a dozen vaccines authorized around the world, with 92 additional vaccines in clinical trials and 30 in advanced testing, according to The New York Times. We have passed the two billion dose landmark and—with human ingenuity and political will—it’s entirely possible the Great Coronavirus Pandemic will mostly be behind us by the end of next year.
That would be a truly astounding feat of human ingenuity and compassion for all the world, rich or poor. It’s one worth recognizing.