While the biggest vaccination campaign in human history is underway, vaccine nationalism – where countries push to get more jabs, is fueling the gap in global access.
As of Thursday, more than 180 million doses have been administered, according to data compiled by Our World in Data.
The highest number of doses have been administered in the United States, the hardest-hit country by the coronavirus. While Israel's rate of inoculation dwarfs the efforts of other nations, with almost 80 doses administered for every 100 people.
Data shows that richer countries are hoarding COVID-19 vaccines at the expense of poorer ones.
Another study by Duke University's Global Health Innovation Center shows similar trend: out of the 8.2 billion confirmed purchases of COVID-19 vaccines worldwide so far, 4.6 billion doses have gone to the wealthiest nations.
In other words, high-income countries, which represent only 16 percent of the world's population, have taken more than half of available doses.
By sharp contrast, lower middle-income countries hold 599 million doses, and low-income countries hold 670 million, according to the data.
Some countries have reserved enough doses to immunize their own people multiple times over.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday criticized the "wildly uneven and unfair" distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, voicing alarm that over 130 countries haven't given their first shots yet.
Vaccine equity is the biggest moral test facing the global community, the UN secretary-general warned.
The World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus issued a similar warning earlier that the world was "on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure" because of unequal distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
And we've seen familiar scenarios before.
When the H1N1 swine flu struck in 2009, some of the world's richest countries gobbled up all the vaccines, leaving the poorer countries – also among the worst affected – without sufficient doses.
The previous pandemic killed at least 18,000 people – and probably many more, the majority of fatalities occurred in Africa and Southeast Asia.
As of today, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed over two million lives, and could dampen or even derail the global economy recovery if efforts to vaccinate the world fail.
A recent study commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce concluded an unequal allocation of injections could deprive the world economy of as much as $9.2 trillion, as much as half of which would fall on advanced economies.
What's been done?
Many poorer countries are now relying on COVAX, the only global initiative that is working with governments and manufacturers to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are available worldwide to both higher-income and lower-income countries.
Established last year, the scheme is led by the WHO together with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.
"We wanted to avoid the mistakes that we had seen in the H1N1 pandemic when a small number of high-income countries bought up the global supplies of vaccine and poorer countries as well as other countries were left to fend for themselves," said CEO of Gavi Seth Berkley.
Earlier this month, COVAX set out a plan for global distribution of 337 million doses of vaccines for participating countries.
First deliveries are expected in late February, with some 145 countries set to receive enough doses to cover about 3.3 percent of their population by the first half of 2021.
In longer term, COVAX aims to deliver more than two billion doses across the world by the end of this year. Of those, at least 1.8 billion doses will go to 92 poor- and middle-income countries participating in the scheme, covering around 20 percent of their populations.
Although the target fell well short of the threshold of 60-70 percent vaccine coverage rate to achieve herd immunity, it would give essential protection to those who are first in line, such as health care workers and those most-at-risk.
"We must ensure that no country in need of the vaccines is left behind and no individuals waiting for vaccines are neglected," said Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday.
At the virtual meeting of the UN Security Council on COVID-19 vaccine distribution, he reiterated China's pledge to make its vaccines a global public good contributing to the accessibility and affordability of vaccines in developing countries.
China is now providing vaccine aid to 53 developing countries, as well as exporting vaccines to 22 countries.
On February 1, Pakistan became the world's first country to receive China's vaccine donation of 500,000 doses. A latest shipment of 200,000 doses of China-provided COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Zimbabwe on February 15, becoming one of first three African countries to receive COVID-19 vaccine donations from China. Equatorial Guinea received its vaccines from China on February 10.
China has also announced its plan to provide 10 million doses of vaccines to COVAX, mainly to meet the demand of developing countries.
Graphics: Jia Jieqiong, Feng Yuan, Chen Yuyang