Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), has expressed worry over the distribution of the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines, especially to health workers and the elderly in low-income countries. The DG said that rich countries were sabotaging equitable access to drugs just as he disclosed that more than 39 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries, whereas only 25 doses have been distributed in one lowest-income country.
According to him, some countries and companies continue to go around the COVAX facility in order to jump to the front of the queue by driving up prices. These actions, according to him, will lead to hoarding, a chaotic market, uncoordinated response, continued social and economic disruption, could delay the delivery of vaccines to poor countries, and prolong the pandemic.
The WHO DG, therefore, urged higher-income countries and manufacturers of vaccines to work together in solidarity to ensure that within the first 100 days of this year, vaccination of health workers and older people is underway in all countries.
Speaking during its 148th session of the Executive Board, on Monday, Ghebreyesus, stated: “The recent emergence of rapidly-spreading variants makes the rapid and equitable rollout of vaccines all the more important. But we now face the real danger that even as vaccines bring hope to some, they become another brick in the wall of inequality between the world’s haves and have-nots.
“It’s right that all governments want to prioritize vaccinating their own health workers and older people first. But it’s not right that younger, healthier adults in rich countries are vaccinated before health workers and older people in poorer countries. There will be enough vaccine for everyone. But right now, we must work together as one global family to prioritize those most at risk of severe diseases and death, in all countries.
“For the past 9 months, the ACT Accelerator and the COVAX vaccines pillar have been laying the groundwork for the equitable distribution and deployment of vaccines. We have secured 2 billion doses from five producers, with options on more than 1 billion more doses, and we aim to start deliveries in February. I use this opportunity to thank Gavi and CEPI.
“COVAX is ready to deliver what it was created for. But in recent weeks I have heard from several Member States who have questioned whether COVAX will get the vaccines it needs and whether high-income countries will keep the promises they have made. As the first vaccines begin to be deployed, the promise of equitable access is at serious risk.
“More than 39 million doses of vaccine have now been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries. Just 25 doses have been given in one lowest-income country. Not 25 million; not 25 thousand; just 25. I need to be blunt: the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.
“Even as they speak the language of equitable access, some countries and companies continue to prioritize bilateral deals, going around COVAX, driving up prices and attempting to jump to the front of the queue. This is wrong. 44 bilateral deals were signed last year, and at least 12 have already been signed this year. The situation is compounded by the fact that most manufacturers have prioritized regulatory approval in rich countries where the profits are highest, rather than submitting full dossiers to WHO.
“This could delay COVAX deliveries and create exactly the scenario COVAX was designed to avoid, with hoarding, a chaotic market, an uncoordinated response, and continued social and economic disruption. Not only does this me-first approach leave the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people at risk, it’s also self-defeating.
“Ultimately, these actions will only prolong the pandemic, the restrictions needed to contain it, and human and economic suffering. Vaccine equity is not just a moral imperative; it is a strategic and economic imperative.” He added: “A recent study estimated that the economic benefits of equitable vaccine allocation for 10 high-income countries would be at least 153 billion U.S. dollars in 2021, rising to 466 billion dollars by 2025. That’s more than 12 times the total cost of the ACT Accelerator.
“It’s not too late. I call on all countries to work together in solidarity to ensure that within the first 100 days of this year, vaccination of health workers and older people is underway in all countries. “First, we call on countries with bilateral contracts – and control of supply – to be transparent on these contracts with COVAX, including on volumes, pricing and delivery dates.
“We call on these countries to give much greater priority to COVAX’s place in the queue and to share their own doses with COVAX, especially once they have vaccinated their own health workers and older populations so that other countries can do the same.
“Second, we call on vaccine producers to provide WHO with full data for regulatory review in real-time, to accelerate approvals. We also call on producers to allow countries with bilateral contracts to share doses with COVAX, and to prioritize supplying COVAX rather than new bilateral deals. And third, we call on all countries introducing vaccines to only use vaccines that meet rigorous international standards for safety, efficacy and quality, and to accelerate readiness for deployment.”