It’s been one year since the first covid-19 vaccine was administered to 90-year-old Margaret Keenan in the UK. That moment, said UK health secretary Matt Hancock at the time, marked “the start of the fightback against our common enemy, the coronavirus.”
That fight is still ongoing in 2021. While billions of covid-19 vaccines have been administered since—likely saving hundreds of thousands of lives—there has been much resistance to the jab, and distribution between rich and poor countries remains uneven. As countries respond to a new variant, some are considering stricter measures to get people vaccinated.
Covid-19 vaccines were developed faster than any others in history and held immense promise for helping the world turn a corner in its fight against the coronavirus. So far the vaccines have largely proven successful in doing so.
Both Pfizer and Moderna reported efficacy in the mid-90% range when their vaccines were first approved for emergency use, while the single-dose Johnson & Johnson was estimated to be about 70% effective. While vaccine efficacy came down somewhat as global lockdown restrictions were lifted and new covid-19 variants appeared, the jabs have still protected most people who got them against severe outcomes of the virus, including hospitalization and death.
The CDC estimates unvaccinated people are nine times more likely to be hospitalized from covid-19 compared to vaccinated people, and 14 times as likely to die from the virus. It’s estimated that covid-19 vaccine campaigns saved 279,000 lives in the US, and 500,000 in Europe, according to studies conducted by the Yale School of Public Health and the World Health Organization, respectively.
Despite global efforts to distribute the covid-19 vaccines, access remains much higher in richer countries versus poorer ones. Overall, more than 8 billion shots have been administered globally and around 55% of the world population has received at least one dose, but the rate is much lower in poor countries: barely above 6%.
In the months after covid-19 vaccines first hit the market, many rich countries hoarded them. While they have since pledged more doses to poor countries through the global Covax initiative, the program announced in September it would fall 30% short of its promise to deliver 2 billion shots this year. More than 80% of people in Africa remain unvaccinated, and even as more shots arrive to the continent, ongoing logistical challenges and vaccine hesitancy are complicating rollouts of these campaigns.
At the same time, some countries with ample vaccine access are struggling to hit their targets. About 60% of Americans have been fully vaccinated for covid-19, one of the lowest rates of any G7 nation. Germany, Austria, and the German-speaking region of Switzerland had the largest shares of unvaccinated populations in all of western Europe as of last month.
While it’s still unclear how well current covid-19 vaccines will protect people against the new omicron variant, governments are thinking about how to increase their vaccination rates in light of this new challenge. US president Joe Biden’s federal mandate for employers is largely unenforceable right now as it is held up in the courts, and while New York City announced an expansive new mandate for private employers this week, such requirements don’t address the rest of the country where vaccination rates are much lower.
In Europe, countries including Greece and Austria are planning to enforce fines for people who remain unvaccinated, while Germany has banned them from most public spaces and plans to require covid-19 vaccines for everyone starting in February. In Singapore those who continue to hold off on getting the jab now have to pay their own medical bills if they get covid.
All of these measures have been met by plenty of public resistance. If a third booster dose proves key in protecting people against the omicron variant, the next phase of the pandemic could be challenging for countries already struggling to convince residents to get a first dose.