Copenhagen, 20 October 2021
As of today, one billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the WHO European Region.
“This is a big number and a major achievement credited to all the health care workers relentlessly saving lives on the frontlines of this crisis, but we can’t allow hubris to take hold. Dig deeper and you discover that these one billion doses are unequally shared, leaving many in our Region behind,” says Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe.
It is reassuring that these doses are providing protection against severe illness and death caused by COVID-19, but the pandemic is now raging among the non-vaccinated, with devastating and sometimes deadly consequences. “For the non-vaccinated, nothing has changed in two years while everything has changed for the vaccinated,” says Dr Kluge.
The urgency to accelerate vaccinations is therefore crystal clear. The vast majority of people who are hospitalized due to COVID-19 and require critical care have not received their full course of COVID-19 vaccine. Many countries with high vaccination rates have seen cases surge in recent weeks, but this has not resulted in equally high levels of hospital admissions indicating, without a shadow of doubt, the unquestionable benefits of the vaccines in preventing severe illness and death.
COVID-19 vaccines have been developed to save lives, not to eliminate SARS-CoV-2 and halt its transmission. Yet, the more people who get vaccinated the easier it is to bring transmission under control. Reaching 70 percent coverage everywhere is still our goal if we wish to stabilize the crisis.
Vaccine uptake uneven
Uneven vaccine uptake in Europe is our Region’s biggest enemy in the fight against COVID-19. A billion doses administered has led to roughly a third of the Region being vaccinated. But huge disparities persist, with some countries struggling with inadequate vaccine supply, difficulties in reaching the most vulnerable, vaccine uptake and hesitancy, while other countries have been able to overcome these obstacles.
Political leadership across the Region must be empowered to remove all access barriers to vaccines while supporting communities to address skepticism. Uneven vaccine uptake is solvable, whether through a vast programme of dose-sharing among countries and targeted distribution to the vulnerable, or through the creation of effective dialogue between the people and the science in the form of enhanced participation in research or the use of relevant communication platforms, including both non-digital and digital technologies.
Where demand for vaccination is lacking, these causes must be identified and understood in their context so corrective actions become self-evident. At the heart of these actions are the health workers who are both recipients and promoters of vaccination. They need a supportive environment to be vaccinated themselves as well as sufficient evidence-based information to pass on to the population.
“Speed is our best friend to help close the vaccination gaps in our Region,” says Dr Kluge. “It’s a race against time, because the more the virus circulates, the greater the risk it can mutate and hit back stronger. It is both ethical and smart to share vaccine doses to extend protection to as many people as possible in the shortest time. We must vaccinate everyone most at risk in the European Region while continuing to make doses available to other parts of the world where supply is still severely limited.”
WHO supports the equitable distribution of doses within and beyond the Region by facilitating information-sharing on vaccine supply and availability, and collaboration on dose-sharing through the COVAX facility and other mechanisms.
It is WHO’s firmest ask that every eligible person be vaccinated when it is their turn.
Achieving the first billion doses in the European Region is a great milestone but we have much farther to go. The next billion doses require even more vigilance on maximizing all our levers and using all the tools at our disposal, not only to bring more doses to the people but to ensure they understand the benefits, voluntarily take the vaccine and become ambassadors for vaccination in their own communities.
“History is testing us with this pandemic. Determined and collective action will lead to success while going it alone will lead to failure,” says Dr Kluge. “Until the pandemic is over, we must work as a team to keep ourselves and each other safe.”