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COVAX starts global vaccine push in Ghana

The COVAX Facility's global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines finally launched with the delivery of 600,000 doses to Ghana's capital Accra.

The COVAX Facility's first COVID-19 vaccines arrive at Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana
The COVAX Facility's first COVID-19 vaccines arrive at Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana (AN/Francis Kokoroko)

The COVAX Facility's global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for low- and middle-income nations finally launched on Wednesday with the delivery of 600,000 doses of AstraZeneca-Oxford's shot to Ghana's capital Accra.

The organizations that co-lead COVAX — Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, World Health Organization and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI — are working with drugmakers to protect vulnerable groups in the first half of 2021. They aim to distribute at least 2 billion doses globally by the end of the year.

AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccines, shipped from the Serum Institute of India, arrived in Ghana on a flight from Mumbai. The flight arrived by way of Dubai, where a shipment of syringes was added from a Gavi-funded stockpile at UNICEF’s regional supply hub.

Its arrival marked another step toward accomplishing COVAX's mission "to help end the acute phase of the pandemic as quickly as possible by enabling global equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines," Gavi’s CEO Seth Berkley said.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said a lot of work remains "with governments and manufacturers to ensure that vaccination of health workers and older people is underway in all countries within the first 100 days of this year.”

Frontline workers will begin to receive vaccines shortly, according to UNICEF's executive director, Henrietta Fore. Then the "next phase in the fight against this disease can begin — the ramping up of the largest immunization campaign in history," she said. "Each step on this journey brings us further along the path to recovery for the billions of children and families affected around the world.”

The organizations said COVAX "is on track to meet its goal" of distributing at least 2 billion coronavirus vaccines this year for the 190 nations that signed onto the multilateral effort, including at least 1.3 billion donor-funded doses to 92 lower-income nations that will get them for free. They will be distributed at a cost among another 90 nations and eight territories.

No time for 'finger-pointing'

Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden pledged US$4 billion to COVAX, in another turnaround from the former Trump administration.

But the global effort still only has firm agreements for drug makers to provide a few hundred million doses and missed its earlier goal of launching vaccinations in the poorest nations at the same time they were starting in wealthy nations.

The first deliveries of the two-shot AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccines to Ghana — enough for about 1% of the nation's 31 million inhabitants — will help vaccinate "key groups such as health workers and other vulnerable groups," according to John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This is an important step towards our continental goal of immunizing at least 60% of Africa's population with safe and efficacious vaccines against COVID-19, to ease the strain on our health systems and economies and continue our work towards our continental development agenda," he said.

Thomas Cueni, director general of the Geneva-based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, or IFPMA, said it's the first time in the history of pandemics that vaccines have been rolled out to low- and middle-income nations less than three months after WHO approved their emergency use.

'But there are going to be challenges, whether in manufacturing or in delivery," said Cueni. "We must work together to find solutions. This is how we have gotten so far in such a short time. Finger-pointing and singling out manufacturers as not delivering will be counterproductive.”