The head of the World Health Organization warned the world was on the brink of “catastrophic moral failure”, as poor countries fall behind richer nations in accessing the vaccines needed to protect their populations against Covid-19.
“The price of this failing will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries,” said director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “It’s not right that younger, healthier adults in rich countries are vaccinated before health workers and older people in poorer countries.”
The WHO set up the Covax facility last year, with Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, to ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines worldwide. The programme aims to distribute 2bn Covid-19 vaccine doses by the end of the year for free, or at a reduced cost. But it has struggled to mobilise the necessary support from wealthy nations to subsidise the initiative.
Mr Tedros said the actions of pharmaceutical companies and rich governments had undermined the effort.
“Even as they speak the language of equitable access, some countries and companies continue to prioritise bilateral deals, going round Covax, driving up prices and attempting to jump to the front of the queue,” he said. “This is wrong.”
Rather than submitting their vaccines for approval by the WHO, vaccine manufactures had prioritised securing regulatory approval from authorities in rich countries, Mr Tedros said. He urged all developers to share full clinical trial data with Covax.
Covax has managed to secure orders for 1.07bn doses so far, with deliveries to countries not expected to start until later in the year. Doubts over Covax’s ability to hit its 2bn dose target have left cash-strapped governments in Africa and parts of Latin America and south Asia, scrambling to secure their own deals.
Until June, Covax supplies “may not extend beyond the needs of frontline healthcare workers, and may thus not be enough to contain the ever-increasing toll of the pandemic in Africa”, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa said last week.
On January 7 South Africa, with a population of 58m, announced it had reached an agreement to acquire 1.5m doses of AstraZenca’s Covid-19 vaccine from the India-based manufacturer Serum Institute. Guinea has been using a vaccine developed by Russia’s state-owned Gamaleya Institute on an experimental basis. But South Africa is the only African country so far to reach a bilateral vaccine deal.
In response the African Union intervened last week, announcing that it had agreed to purchase 270m doses for its 54 member countries from Pfizer, AstraZeneca via the Serum Institute and Johnson & Johnson. African countries will be able to place orders via the AU and pay on delivery or over five years.
The AU has said it was also working with the World Bank to provide members access to roughly $5bn in funding to pay for vaccines. But the doses committed to date still fall well short of the doses required to protect Africa’s population of more than 1.3bn people.
Mr Tedros urged all countries to share with the WHO data on pricing, volumes and delivery dates in their bilateral contracts with vaccine makers to help the WHO better understand and manage global supplies.