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Ukraine-Russia War Threatens to Stymie Covid Vaccination Efforts

March 1, 2022, 10:00 AM

The humanitarian crisis spurred by the war in Ukraine threatens to worsen the spread of Covid-19 and hamper vaccination efforts across Europe, health security and human rights specialists say.

The European Union is preparing for an outflow of at least a million refugees following Russian’s invasion of Ukraine late last week. An exodus of just 10% of Ukraine’s 44 million residents would put significant pressure on neighboring countries’ ability to provide essential health services like primary care, childhood screenings, and Covid-19 shots.

“With conflict, health services could be disrupted or heavily strained,” said Nicole DeCastro, who worked on the Ebola response in West Africa and the humanitarian crisis in Syria. “With that, there’s going to be difficulty in keeping the priority on getting Covid-19 vaccinations in people’s arms.”

More than one-third of Ukraine’s population is vaccinated, according to Our World in Data. The global vaccine supply chain is already plagued by production limitations and inequities in access, and discord in eastern Europe could only exacerbate the situation.

“The vaccine supply chains are already under a lot of stress. So by adding a refugee crisis, or just conflict in itself on top of that,” DeCastro said, “you’re making it even more difficult to get vaccines into arms.”

‘Totally Disrupted’

Ukraine has already secured vaccine doses for more than 150% of its population, according to Global Covid-19 Access Tracker data. But only about 35% of those doses have been delivered to the public.

The crisis with Russia poses a threat to getting more Ukranians immunized, health experts say.

“There are not yet good systems for providing vaccines in humanitarian and conflict situations,” said Brook Baker, a Northeastern University law professor. “The influx of large populations living in crowded conditions will result in increased transmission but little protection.”

That impact may be felt beyond Ukraine as well.

“The effort to control the pandemic in Ukraine will be totally disrupted,” Baker said. “The risk of rippling negative effects are certainly possible in nearby countries, but much depends on the unknown dynamics of the war.”

The global COVAX vaccine initiative has brought donated vaccines to at-need regions around the world, including Ukraine. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance organization that co-leads COVAX, told Bloomberg Law that Ukraine has already received over 8 million Covid-19 doses through the effort, and that it will continue backing Ukrainian immunization efforts.

“Gavi and COVAX’s support for Ukraine will continue as and when it requests it. In the meantime we dearly hope for a diplomatic end to this crisis before any more lives are lost,” the group said.

COVAX has a “Humanitarian Buffer” mechanism for ensuring vaccine access for asylum seekers, refugees, and in other instances where there are gaps in immunization campaigns that can’t be avoided.

But the “humanitarian buffer needs to be streamlined, resourced, and strengthened,” Baker said. “It will also take time to set up emergency humanitarian health services in a war-torn Ukraine.”

Coordination Critical

Coordination among international development groups will be critical to keeping essential health services going during the humanitarian crisis, DeCastro said.

“We know in conflict, that the largest cause of death is not from the conflict itself. But it’s often from a lack of access to health care. So it’s really important for humanitarian and development organizations to coordinate and partner together to ensure that service delivery,” DeCastro said.

Anytime there’s an international emergency, whether it’s a natural disaster or conflict, UNICEF and other United Nations systems are in place to pop up immediately, she said. International development organizations have also been working in Ukraine for decades.

The humanitarian work tends to be short term to address an immediate crisis, whereas the development organizations tend to focus on long-term changes.

“It’s really important for these humanitarian orgs to coordinate with the development organizations and really meet the needs of what’s going on in the country because you don’t want to waste time and resources and energy,” DeCastro, who is now a health security global practice specialist with the international development firm DAI, said.

“You want to really survey the need, and figure out what’s necessary and keep the access to essential services prioritized,” she said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at jbaumann@bloombergindustry.com; Ian Lopez in Washington at ilopez@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Alexis Kramer at akramer@bloomberglaw.com