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Delays foreseen with COVAX vaccine deliveries

International organizations acknowledged significant delays in delivering COVID-19 vaccines to poor nations due to pressure from India.

Kenyan soldiers with the African Union Mission in Somalia talk about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19
Kenyan soldiers with the African Union Mission in Somalia talk about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (AN/AMISOM)

GENEVA (AN) — International organizations behind the COVAX Facility acknowledged significant delays in delivering COVID-19 vaccines to poor nations on Thursday due to pressure from India's government on the world's biggest vaccine maker.

The delays could have major implications for bringing about the end of the coronavirus pandemic that the World Health Organization declared in March 2020.

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, one of the organizations that lead the COVAX Facility's multilateral efforts to distribute at least 2 billion doses globally by the end of the year, announced that deliveries of doses from the Serum Institute of India, or SII, will be delayed this month and next. It blamed the delays on India's government.

"Delays in securing supplies of SII-produced COVID-19 vaccine doses are due to the increased demand for COVID-19 vaccines in India," Gavi said in a statement. "Separately, participating economies in the COVAX Facility that have been allocated doses from the AstraZeneca manufacturing network have been notified that some first deliveries anticipated in March will now take place in April."

Only last month COVAX's global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for low- and middle-income nations finally launched with the delivery of 600,000 doses of AstraZeneca-Oxford’s shot to Ghana’s capital Accra. COVAX, co-led by WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, is working with drugmakers with the aim of protecting vulnerable groups in the first half of 2021.

At least 1.3 billion donor-funded doses of approved vaccines were set to be delivered in 2021 to 92 low- and middle-income economies eligible for COVAX. But India's burgeoning demand for more vaccines, based on its own worsening situation with the pandemic — the country has more than 50,000 new coronavirus infections a day — complicates SII's promised deliveries to COVAX.

SII's CEO Adar Poonawalla, whose billionaire family controls the drug maker founded by his father in 1966, said on Twitter last month that India's government had "directed" the global company "to prioritize the huge needs of India and, along with that, balance the needs of the rest of the world. We are trying our best."

'A vaccine war'

With fewer than 4% of its 1.3 billion population vaccinated, India's government appears to have demanded cutbacks in exported vaccines so that it could commandeer most of SII's production of 2.4 million daily shots of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine.  The government has not yet commented publicly on the situation.

The government has seen to it that 60.5 million shots so far went to 77 nations, according to foreign ministry data, but only 17 million of the SSI-made AstraZeneca-Oxford shots were provided to COVAX-participating countries, including 28 of Africa's 54 nations. And there have been just half a dozen shipments of any kind since mid-March, the figures show, while at least 10 African countries have yet to receive any vaccines from COVAX.

"This situation is going to significantly impact our ability to fight this virus,” African Union public health agency chief John Nkengasong said in response to reporters' questions about the tightening of vaccine supplies due to restrictions from India and the European Union, which drafted emergency rules to curb exports.

Africa's 1.2 billion population has taken "tiny but very important steps in the right direction" by administering 7.2 million COVAX-provided doses, he said on Thursday, but any further delays in vaccine shipments could lead to losses of life, conflicts and other major setbacks among competing African nations.

"We are edging towards a third wave. And without rapid access to vaccines, we will be considerably challenged. Lives will be lost. Economies will continue to struggle," Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a video press briefing.

“The best way for us as a continent to succeed is to work collectively," he said. "There is no need, absolutely no need for us as humanity to go into a vaccine war to fight this pandemic. We will all be losers.”

Africa has reported 4.1 million COVID-19 infections and 110,000 deaths, or 3.4% and 4%v, respectively, of all global cases. More than a third of all cases have been reported in South Africa, which is seeking to buy more vaccines from drug makers and through an A.U. purchasing program.

Gavi, however, said COVAX has not given up on its goals.

"COVAX retains its objective of supplying initial doses of vaccines to all participating economies in the first half of the year before ramping up significantly in the second half of 2021," Gavi said. "To date, COVAX has shipped vaccines to over 50 countries and economies."