The World of International Organizations

WHO urges end to bilateral vaccine deals

The first doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine arrive at the U.S. Naval Medical Center San Diego in mid-December (AN/Erwin Jacob Miciano)

The head of the U.N. health agency asked wealthy countries to stop hoarding most of the world’s COVID-19 vaccine supply, telling reporters on Friday it is impeding multilateral efforts to ensure all nations have equal access.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the proliferation of bilateral deals among drug makers and nations that can afford to buy their own stockpile is raising the costs for the rest of the world, which makes it even harder for the COVAX Facility’s multilateral efforts to get the vaccines to the poorest high-risk populations.

“At present, 42 countries are rolling out safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. Thirty six of these are high-income countries and six are middle-income. So there’s a clear problem that low- and most middle-income countries are not receiving the vaccine yet,” Tedros said in an opening statement.

“At the outset, rich countries have bought up the majority of the supply of multiple vaccines. Now we’re also seeing both high- and middle-income countries, that are part of COVAX, making additional bilateral deals,” he continued. “This potentially bumps up the price for everyone and means high-risk people in the poorest and most marginalized countries don’t get the vaccine.”

COVAX was created last April, a month after WHO declared coronavirus as a pandemic, by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and WHO, both based in Geneva, and by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, based in Oslo, Norway. It has secured contracts for 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines that Tedros said will be rolled out as soon as the vaccines are delivered, and it has the right of first refusal for an additional 1 billion doses.

But wealthy countries have locked up most of 2021’s COVID-19 vaccine supply — six times what developing nations expect to get over the next four years — despite COVAX’s multilateral efforts to ensure all nations have equal access, global health data shows.

‘Donate and release’

Vaccines will reach the majority of rich-country citizens in the first quarter of 2021, and citizens of low- and lower-middle-income countries will also begin to access them, said Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a development economist and former World Bank managing director who chairs Gavi’s board and sits on Twitter’s board. The 2 billion vaccine doses from COVAX released over the next year, she said, should provide enough doses to protect all health- and social-care workers worldwide by mid 2021.

“And despite meeting with its share of naysayers, the program has continued to attract more governments, economic policymakers, and vaccine manufacturers,” Okonjo-Iweala wrote in an op-ed column. “These participants are signing on because they recognize that COVAX is the only viable global solution to the COVID-19 crisis.”

Tedros said some companies and countries also have not submitted critical data that WHO needs to make emergency use listings, which “blocks the whole system of procurement and delivery. Vaccine nationalism hurts us all and is self-defeating.”

“The current variants show that the virus is doing its best to make itself more suitable to ongoing circulation within the human population,” he said. “This is normal of every virus but at present we’re helping it thrive if we don’t reduce transmission and vaccinate equitably.”

As a result, Tedros urged nations that have contracted more vaccines than they will need, and are controlling the global supply, to also “donate and release them to COVAX immediately” and to “stop making bilateral deals at the expense of COVAX.”

“No country is exceptional and should cut the queue and vaccinate all their population while some remain with no supply of the vaccine,” he added. “Science has delivered. Let’s not waste the opportunity to protect lives of those most at risk, and ensure all economies have a fair shot at recovery.”

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