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As Omicron spreads globally, 94% of people in low-income countries remain unvaccinated and unprotected against COVID-19, warns IRC

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With only 15% (256 million out of 1.67 billion) of pledged vaccine donations delivered to date, the IRC calls for all countries to close this gap and deliver on the vaccine doses promised.

New York, NY, December 2, 2021 — The spread of the Omicron variant globally is an example of why the world needs to end vaccine inequality and scale up delivery to all, especially the world's most vulnerable, warns the IRC. Our best defense against Omicron and the spread of other variants is to vaccinate as many people as possible globally. Yet, millions of people in low-income and conflict-affected countries continue to be ignored as wealthy nations prioritize boosters over equitable access to life-saving vaccines.

  • Eight out of ten countries on the IRC's 2021 Emergency Watchlist are still less than 5% vaccinated with the Democratic Republic of Congo (0.06%), Yemen (1.16%), and South Sudan (1.17%) seeing the lowest coverage.
  • Comparatively, the US, UK, Germany, and Sweden have vaccinated nearly 58%, 68%, 68%, and 70% of their populations respectively --- and are starting to give booster shots whilst people in low-income countries go entirely unprotected.
  • COVID-19 vaccine inequality is particularly pronounced in Africa, which has received just 2.8% of the world's vaccine doses, despite being home to 17% of the global population.

Last month, countries in the Sahel, such as Burkina Faso and Niger, already requiring significant humanitarian assistance, saw a 31% and 22% increase in COVID deaths respectively. Given limited access to testing, this is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Fragile health systems in conflict-affected states are already overwhelmed, and therefore it is critical that vaccine donations are accompanied by sufficient funds to support delivery as well as resources for diagnosis and care to save lives now.

Only 13% of doses contracted by COVAX --- the program designed to deliver vaccine doses to the world's most vulnerable --- have been delivered. The IRC welcomes commitments from the US, UK, EU, Germany, and Sweden to donate to the COVAX program, but the majority of commitments made have yet to be delivered, and the world needs far more doses than what has been committed.

David Miliband, President and CEO at the International Rescue Committee said, "The race between vaccines and the variants is being lost in poorer countries while richer countries debate vaccine hesitancy. This is dangerous as well as immoral. We are long overdue in rushing billions of vaccines as well as the funds to deliver them to frontline providers especially for last-mile delivery--- and therefore into arms --- in low-income and fragile contexts. Until we do so, new variants will only continue to undermine pandemic control globally - with the world's most vulnerable paying the highest price.

"Over 5 million people have lost their lives to COVID-19 and the global economy has suffered a multi-trillion dollar hit. Anti-vax protests across Europe are an affront to IRC's clients and millions around the world desperate for a chance at vaccination. Meanwhile twenty countries where the International Rescue Committee works have vaccinated less than 5% of their population due to lack of supply. Many of these countries could battle another variant while they face ongoing, insufficient vaccine coverage to protect their populations.

"The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response called for 1 billion redistributed vaccine doses by 1 September of this year. To date, one quarter of that amount has been delivered to the poorest countries. The inadequacy of our global response, particularly in terms of collective leadership and resource allocation, has never been more apparent or more dangerous. The IRC urges high-income countries to increase their investments in the COVAX facility and to expand humanitarian funding and support for frontline responders.

"Sustainably improving vaccine equity will require bold reforms to ensure collective leadership, accountability, and sufficient resources. The establishment of a leader-level governing body --- namely a Global Health Threats Council as endorsed at the Global COVID-19 Summit earlier this year --- with links to a lean financing mechanism is not just part of building back better. It is a critical strategy to deliver on commitments to supercharge the COVID response and address global inequities, especially vaccine inequity, now. In the high stakes race that pits vaccines against variants, relying on ad hoc accountability and unpredictable financing is too risky."

*The IRC has developed a comprehensive mitigation and response plan which touches every country where we work and focuses on preventing and responding to the spread of COVID-19 within vulnerable communities and meeting our clients' other immediate health and economic needs, including: expanding our protection services for women and girls; prioritizing the safety of our staff; and ensuring our programming can continue uninterrupted as much as possible. The IRC is delivering COVID-19 vaccinations to refugees and displaced people in a number of the countries we work, including Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Jordan. *