One billion Covid jabs: a pin-prick of hope for humanity

Paris, France: On December 8, 90-year-old British woman Margaret Keenan, resplendent in her Christmas T-shirt, received the Western world's first Covid vaccination -- a chink of light at the end of the tunnel for humanity after a devastating pandemic year.

Six months on, nearly one billion Covid jabs -– both first and second shots -- have been administered globally, according to AFP's database.

The unprecedented inoculation drive is seen as the world's ticket out of the coronavirus disaster, despite concerns about rare side effects, worries oversupply, and a glaring inequality between rich and poor.

With new Covid variants sparking a worrying fresh spike of cases and uncertainty over the vaccines' effectiveness against them, the planet is now racing to inoculate as many people as possible before being overwhelmed by yet another wave of a pandemic that has already killed three million people.

"A year ago I felt myself a young man, now I am an old man," said Laszlo Cservak, a 75-year-old Hungarian, after his first jab near the River Danube.

"I horribly miss not going to the pool or gym, and traveling, so I came here to get liberated and my old life back," added Cservak, reflecting the Covid weariness felt by billions worldwide.

In the darkest days of the pandemic, the idea of rapidly creating, manufacturing, and authorizing even one effective vaccine against Covid looked far off.

But the world's scientists, aided by billions in public funding, worked around the clock to develop several viable vaccines -- the first ones using cutting-edge mRNA technology that hacks into human cells and effectively turns them into vaccine-making factories.

"Normally, it takes five to 10 years to produce a new vaccine," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament in February.

"We did it in 10 months. This is a huge scientific success."

'Jabs army'

With clinical trials showing the efficacy of up to 95 percent, attention turned to the logistical nightmare of producing, storing, delivering, and administering the vaccine -- in theory to everyone on Earth who wanted it.

The rollout was sluggish in many countries but faced with a life-or-death race against time, some deployed creative logistical solutions, turning cathedrals, iconic sports stadiums, and theme parks into emergency vaccination centers.

France turned a velodrome into a vaccino-drome. Venice created the vaccination vaporetto. Hard-hit Britain deployed tens of thousands of vaccine volunteers, dubbed the "jabs army".

World leaders from US President Joe Biden, Britain's Queen Elizabeth, and Pope Francis rolled up their sleeves to take the shot -- although not always in front of the cameras -- in a bid to counter public skepticism.

Biden told the world "there's nothing to worry about" as he received his shot live on TV.

The few countries that rolled out a vaccine quickly have seen cases and deaths fall, with a return to something of a normal life.

In Israel, where more than half of the population is fully vaccinated, cases dropped to around 13 per 100,000 people compared to around 650 in January. Deaths fell by a factor of 10.

British pubs have reopened their beer gardens, Israel dropped mask wearing outdoors, and theme parks and theatres have restarted in the United States.

Nekia Griffin, a 46-year-old medical administrator, and Harry Potter fan, told AFP her trip to Universal Studios in California was her "first real outing" since last spring.

"To get a piece of that magic is just, it's indescribable. It's just so wonderful to be back."

'Shocking' disparity

But it has been far from plain sailing. The scramble for vaccines has seen ugly political spats, with China and Russia accused of "vaccine diplomacy" by offering homemade jabs to strategic allies.

Britain and the EU became embroiled in an unseemly post-Brexit row over access to vaccines and the bloc came under fire for a shambolic start to the vaccine rollout.

"Getting these vaccines into the arms of billions of people is now the most pressing challenge for the international community. This is, in a manner of speaking, the 'new arms race'," according to The Soufan Center, a research body.

And with World Health Organization officials stressing that "no one is safe until everyone is safe", there has been outrage over the gap between the rich world and poorer countries -- a "shocking and expanding disparity," according to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Around half of the doses administered so far have been in high-income countries accounting for 16 percent of the population. The 29 lowest-income nations have received 0.1 percent, according to an AFP count.

Recently, very rare but occasionally fatal side effects including blood clots have hit the headlines, afflicting particularly the vaccine produced by AstraZeneca.

Despite authorities stressing the benefits far outweigh the risks, the negative press threatens to weigh on vaccine take-up, with a flood of misinformation on social media fuelling the anti-vax drive.

Some have resorted to bribing the reluctant: California-based firm Bolthouse Farms gave workers $500 to get the jab. One Beijing district handed out boxes of eggs and free trips to popular tourist attractions as an incentive.

'Long tunnel'

What does the future hold? Already stirring controversy are 'vaccine passports', likely to be required in some form for international travel and entrance to public events, despite campaigners crying foul over data protection.

Vaccine tourism is also a growing trend: countries like Greece and Iceland are banking on a surge from already-vaccinated holidaymakers while Serbia has welcomed thousands of "vaccine tourists" as domestic take-up stalls.

Politicians and scientists stress that vaccination -- combined with lockdowns and social distancing -- is the only way out of the Covid crisis.

But poor countries face many years before their populations are vaccinated and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla has already warned a third shot may be required, even possibly an annual jab.

As senior WHO adviser Bruce Aylward said as the first shots were going into shoulders in December: "There is light at the end of the tunnel. There is a bright light at the end of it, getting brighter, but it is a long tunnel."

Covid jabs at the ends of the earth

Nearly one billion Covid jabs have now been administered worldwide but reaching people in all four corners of the planet is an unprecedented logistical challenge.

While Japan is best known for its teeming megacities, much of its countryside remains remote and depopulated, making vaccination of its often elderly residents a huge headache.

The village of Kitaaiki, in the foothills of the picturesque mountains of Nagano, is a case in point. It is home to just over 700 people -– one-third of them over 65 -– and with only one doctor to give everyone their jab, Kazuhiro Matsuhashi.

Matsuhashi has received one box of Pfizer jabs, enough to inoculate everyone who wishes to receive the vaccine, but he has to work fast, injecting around 60 people per day.

The doctor said his local knowledge helped him in his mission to vaccinate as many villagers as possible. "I can make these thoughtful decisions for each resident," he told AFP.

The approach seems to be working. Kakino Yamaguchi, a 93-year-old woman, said: "When I saw those thick needles on TV, I thought to myself 'I don't want that. But I didn't feel anything today."

"This doctor has been looking after me for so many years. So I wasn't worried about getting the vaccine at all, because I trust the doctor," Yamaguchi told AFP.

'House to house'

For Anselmo Tunubala, a nurse from the Misak ethnic indigenous group in Colombia, the problem is battling skepticism over the vaccine due to a belief in traditional plant-based medicines.

On foot or by motorbike, Tunubala tours the mountains in the country's southwest searching for people over 70 to vaccinate.

"I go from house to house raising awareness about vaccination, because grandparents always have low defenses and it is to protect them from the disease that we are facing. Without this vaccine, you can get ill with the coronavirus that is bearing down upon us."

Sometimes he is successful, other times he finds himself rebuffed.

Carlos Tunubala, 22, said his pastor had told him vaccination was unnecessary. "Trusting in God we move on, we overcome everything that comes our way," he said.

Others were won over, however. Gerardo Muelas, a 72-year-old from the Misak group said: "We didn't think of getting it, because we used to cure ourselves of anything with plants."

"But as this is a worldwide problem, there is no other solution. Whoever wants to can get it. It's not obligatory, but you would feel safer getting it."

In the remote Sudanese village of Seer, the residents do not have much, but they do have vaccines, courtesy of the Covax initiative that seeks to deliver to the world's poorest areas.

The health ministry has secured 3,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, trained medical staff, and monitored for possible side effects, with the process going without a hitch so far.

"Thank God, everything is going well and there are no delays, the process is going smoothly, the turnout is high and all is well," said lab technician Seifeldin Khodr.

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