WHO desperate for global support for its COVAX initiative

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
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The World Health Organization’s grand plan to have a single cohesive global effort to ensure equitable supply of COVID-19 vaccine to both wealthy and poor countries is already in jeopardy as nations have has early exclusive deals with most of the vaccine makers.  

WHO is awaiting official confirmations from nations across the globe towards its COVAX initiative with a deadline set for 31 August 2020. The organization is expected to receive a plethora of pledges of support for its plan for COVID-19 vaccines for all.

The United States, Japan, Britain and the European Union have all struck their own deals with leading vaccine manufacturers to secure millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses for their citizens, ignoring the U.N. body’s advice that “vaccine nationalism” will reduce the availability of vaccines.

Experts have warned that if other countries who can afford such arrangements continue to pursue a similar approach, the WHO’s strategy for fighting the coronavirus pandemic globally and equitably risks coming undone.

More than 170 countries, including Canada, Britain, Norway, and South Korea have expressed interest to participate in the scheme, which the WHO believes can ensure COVID-19 vaccine availability for both rich and poor countries alike.

The program has signed up nine COVID-19 vaccine candidates and is preparing to collect and deliver 2 billion doses by the end of 2021 across countries that sign up. But WHO has struggled to get richer countries on board for commitments other than full beyond pledges of funding and warm words about donating surplus vaccines.

Last week, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus criticized nations that hoard vaccines, warning the strategy will worsen the pandemic. He has also written letters to members urging their participation as a last-ditch effort to have them on board before the deadline.

The unplanned detour 

Officials from these nations say that both COVAX and government deals can run in parallel, which is a radically different outcome from the original plan outlined in the spring. This would mean that poorer or less powerful countries may go to the back of the queue for vaccines that could help them control the pandemic.

“The risk is that access to COVID-19 vaccines will be defined by purchasing power and the ability to sign advance purchase deals rather than the medical needs or the shifting epidemiological situations,” said Dimitri Eynikel, EU representative on medicines and vaccines for Doctors Without Borders.

WHO has a lot more at stake in effectively managing this initiative global scrutiny continues to grow on how it handled the pandemic.

Senior government officials reveal that supporting a vaccine for developing countries may be hard to comprehend for most of the countries especially when there may not be enough for their own population. A stand which may be difficult to justify internally.