Counting on COVID-19 vaccines

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: Vaccine Inequity Will Prolong Pandemic / View Guide

Directions: Ask your students to read the online Science News article“Global inequity in COVID-19 vaccination is more than a moral problem,” which explores the scientific and economic impacts of the failure to fairly distribute vaccines globally, and answer the following questions. A version of the story, “Vaccine inequity will prolong pandemic,” appears in the March 27, 2021 issue of Science News.

1. How have COVID-19 vaccines been distributed so far in wealthy countries and countries with lower incomes?

Wealthy nations such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have purchased or reserved hundreds of millions to over a billion doses — many more than those countries need based on their population sizes. In the United States, about 16 percent of the country’s 330 million residents have been vaccinated. Meanwhile, 80 less-wealthy nations have yet to administer a single dose. Out of the 350 million vaccine doses that have been given worldwide as of early March 2021, only 330,000 doses were administered in all of Africa. 

2. What would a more equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines looks like?

An equitable distribution would prioritize healthcare workers and vulnerable people in all countries.

3. What is COVAX and what is its mission? What is one large hurdle that COVAX faces in accomplishing its mission?

COVAX is an international initiative that aims to provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines by securing deals that send doses to low-income countries free of charge. Funding for the initiative is currently short billions of dollars.

4. What is herd immunity? What is the threshold to reach herd immunity?

Herd immunity is the level at which enough people in a population are immune to a pathogen to slow its spread. About 60 to 90 percent of a population need to be immunized to reach herd immunity.

5. What are coronavirus variants? How do variants arise and why are scientists concerned about some coronavirus variants?

Coronavirus variants are strains of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Variants arise when a virus replicates and acquires genetic tweaks. Those tweaks can make some variants more dangerous to people, such as making a virus more transmissible.   

6. How could variants worsen the pandemic? How would the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines mitigate this threat?

The more opportunity the coronavirus has to spread, the more likely it is that variants could arise that can evade existing vaccines or people’s immune responses to older variants. If most of a region remains unvaccinated, a new variant could spread rapidly through the region and make its way to other vulnerable areas. Prioritizing regions that are most vulnerable to COVID-19 for vaccination could help stop a variant from becoming widespread.

7. How does the inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines threaten the global economy? How could that threat be averted?

Researchers estimate that extreme vaccine inequity could cost the global economy trillions of dollars in 2021. The world’s economies and supply chains are interconnected. COVID-19 infections and restrictions in countries that make goods could diminish demand and affect the profits of other countries that sell those goods. Investing relatively less money in distributing vaccines globally and more fairly could avoid such disruptions.

8. When do scientists estimate low-income countries will achieve herd immunity to the virus that causes COVID-19? Explain. Low-income countries won’t see widespread vaccination until 2023 or 2024. These countries can’t get doses because wealthy nations are making deals with pharmaceutical companies to buy up most of the vaccine supply.