A coalition of health agencies is calling on wealthy countries to rally together and deliver 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to the Covax program in 2021 to help lower-income countries vaccinate their people in the face of worrying new variants of the virus that are causing chaos in India and elsewhere.
“We are seeing the traumatic effects of the terrible surge of COVID-19 in South Asia – a surge which has also severely impacted global vaccine supplies,” the agencies — the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, Unicef and the World Health Organization — said in a joint statement on Thursday
“We are also witnessing why access to vaccines before a surge occurs is so important. For that reason, we must focus on ensuring countries who have not benefited from these life-saving tools do so now, and with urgency.”
The latest call to action comes after the head of the WHO slammed richer countries for hogging vaccines at the start of the agency’s annual meeting on Monday, in some of the harshest terms he has used since the start of the outbreak.
“There is no diplomatic way to say it: a small group of countries that make and buy the majority of the world’s vaccines control the fate of the rest of the world,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The call comes at a time when wealthier countries, including the U.S., are making progress with their vaccine programs, causing cases, deaths and hospitalizations to decline and allowing some kind of normality to resume.
The U.S. has now fully inoculated 39.7% of the population, while 49.7% has received at least one dose of a two-dose regiment. Among American adults aged 18 and over, 50.3% of the population is fully vaccinated. In the 65-years and older group, 74% is fully vaccinated, the CDC ‘s vaccine tracker shows.
That contrasts with countries in Africa that have been starved of vaccine supply as richer countries race to vaccinate their populations first. South Africa has so far vaccinated just 0.8% of its population, Egypt 0.3% and Sudan 0.2%, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
India, a nation of 1.4 billion that is struggling with a wave of cases of a highly contagious variant called B.1.617, has vaccinated just 13.5 million people, the data shows.
The Covax program that was created by the WHO during the pandemic has delivered more than 70 million doses to 126 countries since February — from remote islands to conflict settings — and more than 35 countries got their first vaccine supply through the program, the agencies said.
“Even though COVAX will have larger volumes available later in the year through the deals it has already secured with several manufacturers, if we do not address the current, urgent shortfall the consequences could be catastrophic,” they said.
The statement called on governments and the private sector to fund the Gavi Coax Advance Market Commitment, a mechanism that brings supply to lower-income economies. The AMC has already secured 1.3 billion doses for delivery in 2021.
“This is enough to protect the most at-risk population groups: health workers, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. We need an additional $2 billion to lift coverage in AMC countries up to nearly 30%, and we need it by June 2 to lock in supplies now so that doses can be delivered through 2021, and into early 2022,” said the statement.
Countries need to share doses now, it said. The WHO has consistently argued that best vaccination practice is for each country to vaccinate its elderly and high-risk people first, then donate its supply to neighboring countries, so they can do the same.
“Countries with higher coverage rates, which are due to receive doses soon should swap their places in supply queues with COVAX so that doses can be equitably distributed as quickly as possible,” the agencies argued.
Finally, they called on governments to free up supply chains, remove trade barriers, export control measures and any other issues that are slowing supply of vaccines, as well as raw materials and components.
“it’s understandable that some countries want to press ahead and vaccinate all of their populations,” said the statement. “By donating vaccines to COVAX alongside domestic vaccination programs, the most at-risk populations can be protected globally, which is instrumental to ending the acute phase of the pandemic, curbing the rise and threat of variants, and accelerating a return to normality.”