Poor countries could be left behind in COVID-19 vaccine distribution: "An unacceptable scenario"

Rich nations dominate vaccine market
Rich nations dominate vaccine market 04:41

With the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine now approved in the United Kingdom, the hope is for a cheap and easy-to-store answer for much of the world, especially in the developing world. But, there is concern that poor countries will still be left behind in the bid to ensure global herd immunity.

Thousands of volunteers from low-income nations in Africa helped to develop several vaccines during trials. Despite that, new research suggests wealthy countries have snapped up more than half of the doses from the leading vaccines while only representing 14% of the world's population.

In the township of Soweto in South Africa, Dimakatso Kunene is participating in one of four vaccine trials underway in the country. She believes this is her best chance to get a vaccine in the foreseeable future.  

"I feel this is a good chance for me because I'm not working and it's a chance for me. So let me go for it," she told CBS News foreign correspondent Debora Patta.

Her instincts are not far off. Despite being at the forefront of vaccine research on the continent, South Africa, like so many other African nations, might have to wait until 2023 before everyone has been immunized.  

"What we are headed for right now is a scenario where the frontline health care workers in Ethiopia will still be waiting to be vaccinated, even after all the 20-year-olds in the U.S. have been vaccinated. And that is an unacceptable scenario," said Andrea Taylor, Duke University's lead researcher into global vaccine distribution. 

Taylor says the delay in vaccinating poorer countries will have devastating consequences for the global economy, costing wealthy nations around $120 billion. 

"There's also a very real risk that if the pandemic is allowed to continue raging in poorer countries, while high-income countries are protected, it can continue to mutate and spread, and there's a chance that we could end up then with a strain that our current vaccine candidates don't cover," she said.

Around 100 nations have joined an initiative to help provide fair access to vaccines, but it's so far falling well short of demand.

And once the vaccine finally reaches low-income nations, there is another major roadblock ahead: distribution.

Transporting vaccines to remote areas can be a logistical nightmare. Using bikes in South Sudan, on foot in Nepal, by donkey in Yemen or over water to far flung villages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Pfizer vaccine already being distributed in the United States needs to be stored at ultra-freezing temperatures, another problem for places with poor or non-existent electrical grids.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is a frontrunner for wide distribution because it's cheaper than the other leading candidates and only requires normal refrigeration. Professor Shabir Madhi, who heads up the Oxford-AstraZeneca trials in South Africa, said the COVID-19 vaccine will have to be easily accessible so that people don't have to travel miles to get their shot.

"We need to ensure that the program itself is extremely friendly and inviting for people to come forward because the last thing that we are wanting to do is add fuel to the anti-vaccine lobby in terms of why people shouldn't be vaccinated. That's what we are wanting to avoid," he said.