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Vaccine doses reach 10 billion worldwide, but marred by inequitable distribution

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 1/28/2022

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel rolled up his sleeve in December 2020 to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, kicking off one of the world’s first mass rollouts of COVID shots, he declared that it marked “the beginning of the end” of the pandemic.

Thirteen months later, his prediction has proved far from true, but 10 billion vaccine doses have been administered globally, a milestone that reflects the astonishing speed with which governments and drug companies have mobilized, allowing many nations to envision a near future in which their people coexist with the virus but aren’t confined by it.

The milestone, reached on Friday, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford, has not been arrived at equitably, even though 10 billion doses could theoretically have meant at least one shot for all of the world’s 7.9 billion people.

In the wealthiest countries, 77 percent of people have received at least one dose, whereas in low-income countries the figure is less than 10 percent. As North America and Europe race to overcome Omicron surges by offering boosters, with some nations even contemplating a fourth shot, more than one-third of the world’s people, many of them in Africa and poor pockets of Asia, are still waiting for a first dose.

The United States has administered five times as many extra shots — about 85 million — than the total number of doses administered in all of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation.

“Ten billion doses is a triumph of science but a complete failure of global solidarity,” said Madhukar Pai, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at McGill University in Montreal.

More than 4.79 billion people worldwide have received a COVID-19 vaccine, equal to about 62.4 percent of the world population.

And not all vaccines are the same. Those made in China have shown to be less effective than the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. And while nearly all of the world’s COVID vaccines protect against severe illness, early research suggests that most offer little protection against infection from Omicron.

The consequences of the vaccine gap have been highlighted by Omicron, which was first identified in southern Africa. Low vaccination coverage creates conditions for widespread virus circulation and with that the possibility of new variants emerging.

The disparities remain even as Covax, the global vaccine sharing initiative that facilitates distribution of donations from rich nations, increases its deliveries. After a slow start because of hoarding by rich nations and large outbreaks that prompted export blockages, Covax said this month that it had delivered its billionth dose — though that is less than half of its initial target.

Misinformation on social media and mistrust of government and pharmaceutical companies has fed into vaccine hesitancy in many countries. Even where people are willing to be inoculated, delivering doses to far-flung areas with poor health infrastructure has been challenging.

Thomas Hale, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Oxford, said that in sub-Saharan Africa, “We’re seeing pretty good vaccination rates in cities and capitals, where vaccines tend to land, but that supply runs headfirst into the general challenges of building stronger health systems in these countries.”

High-income nations have announced initiatives to assist, including the Global COVID Corps, a US government program to help countries overcome logistical and delivery hurdles. But experts say that another monumental challenge is that rich countries have failed to agree on waiving intellectual property restrictions on vaccines, and have not put pressure on drug companies to share their technology so that poorer nations can manufacture doses locally.


Suspected COVID hamster to be returned to owner

HONG KONG — A hamster blamed for being the origin of a cluster of coronavirus infections in a Hong Kong residential building was confirmed to be free of the coronavirus on Friday.

The wrongly accused hamster will be returned to its owner, a 26-year-old man who tested positive for the coronavirus. He was one of at least three positive cases found in the same building. Officials were quick to call out the man’s pet hamster as a potential “patient zero” source of COVID-19 in that estate.

The controversy over hamsters began after a government finding that several hamsters from two batches of Netherland-imported hamsters tested positive for the virus. Later, a 23-year-old pet shop worker also tested positive. Worried about potential hamster-to-human viral transmission, the government ordered a mass culling of 2,000 hamsters in warehouses and local pet shops from the same batch.

Pet hamsters purchased from shops after Dec. 22 could be infected with the virus, authorities said, and “strongly recommended” pet owners to surrender their hamsters. Experts have said the city’s “unstainable” zero-COVID policy — a strict policy striving for zero local COVID-19 cases to resume quarantine-free travel with the mainland — is to be blamed for the hamsters’ culling. Volunteers dashed out to save abandoned hamsters.

As of Jan 21, around 2,500 animals, including hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas, were put down, according to the city’s agriculture department. Of the 113 hamsters surrendered from the public, only one turned out to be positive.


Study links seasonal virus spikes to temperature and humidity

COVID-19 transmission may have seasonal spikes tied to temperature and humidity, increasing at different times of the year for different locations, a new study suggests.

Colder regions, such as the US Northeast, may experience more cases during winter, while warmer regions, such as the southern United States, may see higher transmissions in the summer. More temperate zones could experience two seasonal peaks.

“We think COVID may be becoming endemic, meaning that it will stay within the human population, but we will see spikes based on where we are in a particular geographic point,” said author Antar Jutla, a hydrologist at the University of Florida. “The severity of peaks will be defined by how colder the temperature is and how warmer the temperature is.”

Jutla and his colleagues found that COVID cases in 19 hot spots worldwide increased above and below certain temperature and humidity thresholds, because of the virus’s movement as an aerosol and human behavior. Cases spiked when air temperatures dipped below 62 degrees or above 75 degrees. The virus also tends to linger more in drier environments compared to humid ones.


Seven in 10 adults in America who are likely eligible for a COVID booster have received one, according to a monthly survey that explores the public’s opinion about coronavirus vaccines.

People 65 and older were most likely to report being boosted, the report found.

But among all adults surveyed, including the unvaccinated, only 42 percent said they were boosted.

The lag reflects a pervasive pandemic fatigue that emerged elsewhere in the Kaiser poll. More than three in four adults said they believed it was inevitable that most people in the United States will contract COVID. More people reported feeling worried about the impact of the Omicron variant on the economy and hospitals than on their personal health.



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