Vaccine gap stokes super spreader fears ahead of UN’s first post-Covid meeting

US fears that this week’s annual world leader jamboree at the United Nations could spark a super spreader event will highlight the stark inequality of global access to Covid-19 vaccines — even as developed nations begin offering booster shots.

Scores of presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers are set to ignore an American suggestion to stay home and address the UN General Assembly virtually and will converge on New York City in person this week. The possibility that the visiting delegations might themselves pose a health threat will be an important reminder that while nations like the United States and major European powers have pushed ahead with vaccinating tens of millions of their people, many smaller, poorer nations, which lack pharmaceutical industries, have not been able to secure or make their own vaccines.

The World Health Organization said last week that more than 5.7 billion vaccine doses have been administered globally, but 73% of those doses have been administered in just 10 countries. That reality represents the biggest potential stumbling block to ending the pandemic — and preventing even more infectious strains of the coronavirus like the Delta variant from building resistance to existing vaccines. It will also underscore the world’s failure so far to come up with a unified response to the worst public health crisis in 100 years, which will be at the center of countless speeches by world leaders in the coming two weeks.

While the social side of the UN General Assembly event and bilateral meetings have been pared back, it’s possible that an influx of visitors, many from nations subject to US travel restrictions, could create classic conditions to spread infections and foster global transmission. Although the UN headquarters property is designated as international territory, the delegations will be hosted in a city that now requires proof of vaccination to enter indoor venues like restaurants and gyms. This could potentially open up a new front in Manhattan’s sometimes delicate relationship with foreign envoys witnessed in past spats over motorcades, parking tickets and visits of longtime US foes, like late Libyan and Cuban leaders Muammar Muammar Gadhafi and Fidel Castro, respectively.