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Airport employees unseal a shipment of Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine at the Harare International Airport in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Feb. 15, 2021Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty Images

World leaders have agreed to hold two high-level meetings this week, including an online meeting of G7 leaders, to discuss the rapidly mounting concerns about the global scarcity of COVID-19 vaccines and the unfairness of their distribution.

The issue of fair access – an escalating crisis for many low-income countries, where almost nobody has yet been vaccinated – will be debated by the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday and by the leaders of the Group of Seven countries, including Canada, on Friday.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who will chair the G7 meeting, said the need for fair vaccine distribution is a “colossal mission” for the world. He said there needs to be a unified response to replace the “nationalist and divisive politics that marred the initial response to coronavirus.”

U.S. President Joe Biden will also attend the virtual meeting of G7 leaders. The White House said he plans to discuss ways to improve global vaccine production and distribution.

When will Canada’s general vaccination for COVID-19 begin? The federal and provincial rollout plans so far

Zain Rizvi, a researcher at Public Citizen, a U.S.-based non-profit consumer advocacy group, said the meeting is “an important opportunity for G7 countries to narrow the gap between their lofty rhetoric and the current reality of vaccine nationalism.”

At the UN Security Council, meanwhile, countries such as Mexico are expected to raise the issue of unequal access to vaccines. Of the 177 million doses that have been administered worldwide, the vast majority have gone to the world’s richest countries and biggest economies, while about 130 countries have been unable to vaccinate anyone.

“The disparity in access to vaccines is especially shocking,” a coalition of more than 200 civil-society groups and trade unions from developing countries wrote in a letter to the Canadian government this week. They called for a temporary waiver of vaccine patents, so that vaccine sources can be diversified and expanded.

The shortages and inequities have been worsened by the emerging new COVID-19 variants. Much of the developing world is counting on the inexpensive AstraZeneca vaccine, which was given emergency-use approval by the World Health Organization this week. But the vaccine has been found ineffective in preventing moderate illness from a new variant that is now widespread in several African countries.

Doubts about the AstraZeneca vaccine, along with delays in the COVAX program that will deliver vaccines to the developing world, have left African countries in disarray as they struggle to find new sources.

Under the COVAX program, vaccine deliveries had been scheduled to begin this month. But COVAX announced on Tuesday that the majority of its deliveries won’t begin until March. “The capacity of supplier and freight forwarders will be under considerable pressure,” it said in a statement.

At best, the COVAX program hopes to deliver enough vaccines for 20 per cent of the population in the developing world this year – far less than the number needed to achieve population immunity.

The Lancet COVID-19 Commission, a British-based research and advocacy group, warned this month that the timely supply of COVAX vaccines is “in question” because high-income countries have stepped to “the front of the queue” for the limited supply of vaccines. It said the current COVAX budget of US$6.8-billion should be massively expanded to as much as US$40-billion this year.

The WHO has cautioned that the pooled COVAX purchase scheme will be undermined if countries bypass the scheme to strike their own bilateral deals with suppliers. But many countries are now doing exactly that.

Zimbabwe this week launched its vaccine program by obtaining a shipment of 200,000 doses of a Chinese vaccine. But the Chinese vaccine has not been tested against the new variant, first detected in South Africa and believed to be widespread in many countries in the region, including Zimbabwe.

Several other African countries have ordered the Sputnik vaccine from Russia, although it too has not been tested against the new variant.

Rwanda announced that it had begun its own vaccination program this week. It did not disclose the source of its supply, but it reportedly obtained 1,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, the most expensive vaccine on the market.

Malawi announced on Sunday that it will receive 100,000 doses of the AstraZeneca this week. It plans to persist with AstraZeneca, even though the vaccine is ineffective in preventing mild and moderate illness from the new variant and is unproven in preventing severe illness from the variant. Health experts have said that the new variant is the main cause of a recent surge of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Malawi.

South Africa received one million doses of AstraZeneca this month – and then suspended its vaccination plans after the disclosure of trial results showing that it was ineffective against mild and moderate illness from the new variant.

The South African government announced on Tuesday that it will divert the million AstraZeneca doses to the African Union for redistribution to other African countries. Instead it will rely on a research study of a new Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which will provide 500,000 doses over the next month.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has spoken of the “painful irony” that African countries are struggling even to obtain vaccines that have been tested in trials in those same African countries.

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