Experts Say Developing Countries Need U.S. Vaccine Supply Now

Ambulance or medical truck carrying COVID-19 vaccine and syringe on globe

Nuthawut Somsuk / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • In India, COVID-19 cases and deaths have increased drastically. Reasons include insufficient vaccination of the population, a contagious variant, and not enough hospital beds and supplies. 
  • The U.S. will be sending vaccine raw materials, vaccines, and other supplies to India and is expected to aid other countries soon as well. 
  • Refugees and displaced populations, who may not be part of the infrastructure for vaccination in the countries where they are living, are also at risk for COVID-19. Public health experts are urging countries to send funds and supplies for refugees as well.

The dire COVID-19 situation in India may be even worse than currently reported, public health experts suggest. 

In a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, Ashish Jha, MD, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, shared data on the rate of COVID-19 infections in India, now pegged at at least 350,000 new infections per day. At 25%, the rate of positive tests indicate a high level of transmission, leading Jha to estimate the infection rate may actually be three times what is being reported.

Jha says a premature reopening of the country and a highly-transmissible B.1.1.7 variant are likely responsible for the explosion in COVID-19 cases. While the surge may also be linked to a variant with a “double mutation” found in India, the World Health Organization (WHO) has not yet identified that as a culprit for increased cases. 

Many Indian citizens remain unvaccinated. And Jha—along with other public health experts—say it’s time developed countries with larger vaccine supplies step up and help. 

“While I’m glad that in the U.S. sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds can be vaccinated and go to restaurants, in India people are dying [of the virus] for lack of oxygen,” Jha said at the briefing. 

COVID Outbreaks in Poorer Countries Can Have Worldwide Impact

India is not the only country undervaccinated and at risk of COVID-19 surges. Lack of funding and supply means some of the poorest countries have barely begun vaccinating people. On the other hand, a report published last week by researchers at Duke University found that a number of high- and middle-income nations account for the majority of COVID-19 vaccines administered thus far, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and China.

It’s important to remember that these wealthier countries do not exist in a bubble. Outbreaks in the developing world can impact the West as well. 

“As the pandemic continues and variants emerge, COVID-19 will continue to impact all parts of the world, though to a greater extent in countries with less access to vaccines,” Anna Rouw, a global health data analyst at the Kaiser Family Foundation, tells Verywell. “Achieving global population immunity will be necessary in order to curb the ongoing pandemic and protecting more people against COVID-19 helps to protect the global community.” 

The Duke report, released just before the surge in India, breaks down three tactics for Western countries to help combat COVID-19 on a global scale: 

  1. Further commitments to strengthen the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) initiative, a WHO-driven project to help accelerate development of COVID-19 vaccines and insure equitable distribution throughout the world.  
  2. Multiple approaches to make excess vaccine doses available as soon as possible
  3. Comprehensive approaches to ramping up global vaccine manufacturing capacity

“Availability of vaccines is the defining topic of our time,” Krishna Udayakumar, MD, MBA, director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center and an author of the recent report, tells Verywell. Krishna says the U.S. will have hundreds of millions of excess doses by summertime. “Keeping it on the shelf isn’t necessary, and keeps supply away from countries like India and Brazil who urgently need it.”

According to the Duke report, at the current rate of vaccine delivery, the world’s 92 poorest countries won’t reach 60% vaccination rates until 2023 or beyond.

U.S. Beginning to Send COVID Aid to Other Countries

As of this week, the U.S. began taking steps that align with an equitable, global approach to vaccine distribution. The Biden administration held a background press call with reporters to share what the U.S. is doing to help India, which in part, address the Duke recommendations:

  • The U.S. will export raw materials for India’s Covidshield vaccine (the version of the AstraZeneca vaccine being produced in India) to allow the country to increase supplies
  • At least some portion of the U.S. pre-purchased supply of 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine will be sent to India once the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) signs off on quality assurance. (The vaccine is not yet authorized in the U.S., but it is in other parts of the world). The U.S. has determined that it has enough supply of other vaccines for now.
  • The U.S. is working on sending oxygen and other emergency supplies to India, like personal protective equipment (PPE), medication, and COVID tests.
  • A “strike team” of public health experts is traveling to India to assist their public health system.

Advocates Say Countries with Excess Doses Must Share Them Now 

While vaccine booster shots will likely be needed, Jha tells Verywell that they won’t come from existing vaccine supply. In other words, Americans won’t miss out on booster shots because the U.S. sent excess doses to countries in need for first doses. Jha explains that the companies that supply vaccines to the U.S.—Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson—are keeping up with production. When and if we need boosters, they will be made.

Jha says the U.S. and other wealthy countries may indeed follow Israel’s example; Israel has placed an order with Pfizer for vaccines needed in the future to be manufactured to the specifications of whatever the virus looks like at that time.

What This Means For You

While most Americans who want one can get a vaccine, that is not the case for most of the people in the world right now. Protecting each person protects us all, which is another reason to get vaccinated if you haven’t already.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Fran Kritz
Fran Kritz is a freelance healthcare reporter with a focus on consumer health and health policy. She is a former staff writer for Forbes Magazine and U.S. News and World Report.