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WHO chief angered at rich grip on vaccines

The WHO chief expressed moral outrage at rich nations' young, healthy adults getting vaccinated ahead of poor nations' elderly and health care workers.

COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. administered to Virginia National Guard personnel in December
COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. administered to Virginia National Guard personnel in December (AN/Cotton Puryear)

GENEVA (AN) — WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed moral outrage on Monday at the glaring inequity of rich nations' young, healthy adults getting vaccinated for the coronavirus ahead of poor nations' elderly and health care workers.

Tedros opened the U.N. health agency's week-long executive board meeting by haranguing wealthy countries for locking up most of 2021’s COVID-19 vaccine supply — six times what developing nations expect to get over the next four years — despite the COVAX Facility’s multilateral efforts to ensure all nations have equal access, global health data shows.

"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 25,000; just 25," he said of the barely more than two dozen doses of Russian Sputnik vaccine delivered to people in West Africa's Guinea — the only low-income country to have gotten any such shots so far.

"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," Tedros told the virtual meeting from WHO's Geneva headquarters. "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."

On Friday, as the world surpassed 2 million deaths from COVID-19, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video message that he understood the responsibility governments have to protect their populations, but vaccine nationalism ultimately is self-defeating and will delay a global recovery.

"Vaccines are reaching high income countries quickly, while the world’s poorest have none at all. Science is succeeding, but solidarity is failing. Some countries are pursuing side deals, even procuring beyond need," he said. "We need manufacturers to step up their commitment to work with the COVAX facility and countries around the world to ensure enough supply and fair distribution.  We need countries to commit now to sharing excess doses of vaccines."

A solution to hoarding and chaos

Experts say there will not be enough vaccine supplies to cover the world’s 7.8 billion population until two or three years from now.

But rich countries with 15% of the global population reserved 51% of the most promising vaccine candidates, according to a peer-reviewed study published last month in the BMJ medical trade journal by researchers at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Those countries, mainly in Europe and North America, reserved at least 8.6 billion doses, with additional options or negotiations underway for another 3.5 billion shots, according to WHO figures.

By contrast, the poorest countries, with about 85% of the global population, secured just 2 billion doses to protect high-risk populations by the end of 2021 through the COVAX international alliance, co-led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and WHO, both based in Geneva, and by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, based in Oslo, Norway.

Tedros told WHO's executive board that 44 bilateral deals between wealthy nations and drug makers 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," he said. "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."

That "me-first approach" will not work, he added, because the pandemic will not end until all nations are able to get vaccinated using shots that meet "rigorous international standards for safety, efficacy and quality." Tedros called for all nations to re-prioritize COVAX, including by sharing vaccine stocks, and for all vaccine producers to give WHO full data for regulatory review in real time.