U.N. Head Guterres Confronts World Leaders Over Vaccine Rollout, Calls it 'Obscenity'

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres slammed world leaders over inequity surrounding the global COVID-19 vaccine rollout while speaking at the international organization's annual meeting on Tuesday.

Guterres said images of unused, expired COVID-19 vaccines in the garbage in wealthy countries while wide swaths of the world have not had much access to the vaccines tell "the tale of our times."

"A surplus in some countries. Empty shelves in others," he said.

Guterres pointed out that while the majority of people in wealthier nations have received at least one dose of the vaccine, global disparities persist. In Africa, 90 percent of people remain unvaccinated, he said.

"This is a moral indictment of the state of our world," Guterres said. "It is an obscenity. We passed the science test. But we are getting an F in ethics."

The U.N. returned to its annual in-person gathering in New York, Reuters reported. About one-third of world leaders traveled for the meeting, which was previously held virtually in 2020 due to the pandemic. Topics of discussion were set to include the pandemic and climate change.

Affluent and developed countries being able to vaccinate their citizens more than other nations risks prolonging the pandemic and increasing global inequality, according to a United Nations report from Sunday. Inequitable vaccine distribution leaves billions of people vulnerable—and also allows more deadly variants to emerge.

In low-income countries, the economic impacts of the pandemic could last until 2024, while high-income nations could reach their pre-pandemic per capita GDP growth rates by the end of 2021, according to the U.N.

Over 60 percent of people in high-income countries have been vaccinated by September 15. In low-income nations, that number was only 3.07 percent, the United Nations Development Program reported.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres criticized inequity in the global vaccine distribution, calling it a “moral indictment.” Here, he speaks at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City in February 2020. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Of the 5.7 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccines that have been administered across the world, only 2 percent have been in Africa, vastly disproportionate to its percentage of the world population, Reuters reported.

Other officials have also drawn attention to vaccine inequity. In August, the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for a two-month delay on distributing booster shots, urging wealthy countries to share their doses with others—warning of "vaccine nationalism."

"The virus will get the chance to circulate in countries with low vaccination coverage, and the Delta variant could evolve to become more virulent, and at the same time more potent variants could also emerge," he said.

Others have warned that a focus on booster shots over immunizing the rest of the world risks the emergence of more deadly variants.

By June, five African countries had not been able to administer a single dose of the vaccine. Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of people in the United States and United Kingdom had been fully vaccinated.

"It is extremely concerning and at times frustrating," Africa CDC Director Dr. John Nkengasong said at the time.