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Vials of Covid-19 vaccine ready to be administered.  Vials of Covid-19 vaccine ready to be administered.   (AFP or licensors)

UN bodies decry unfair distribution of Covid-19 vaccines

The United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF and the World Health Organization, WHO, denounce the disparity in access to immunization against the coronavirus, warning it is a “self-defeating strategy”.

By Robin Gomes

“Of the 128 million vaccine doses administered so far, more than three-quarters of those vaccinations are in just 10 countries that account for 60 percent of global GDP.  As of today, almost 130 countries, with 2.5 billion people, are yet to administer a single dose,” lamented UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a joint statement released on Wednesday.

“This self-defeating strategy,” they warn, “will cost lives and livelihoods, give the virus further opportunity to mutate and evade vaccines and will undermine a global economic recovery.” 

The COVAX initiative

The two UN bodies that have been working together for more than 70 years, “call on leaders to look beyond their borders and employ a vaccine strategy that can actually end the pandemic and limit variants”.

COVAX, the abbreviation of Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access, is a global initiative aimed at equitable access to Covid -19 vaccines led by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and others.

The initiative to accelerate access to Covid-19 vaccines was first set up at the end of April 2020 and now plans to distribute more than 330 million vaccine doses to 145 countries in an initial round of distribution by June 2021.

Equitable distribution of vaccines

UNICEF and WHO point out that "COVAX participating countries are preparing to receive and use vaccines. Health workers have been trained, cold chain systems primed. What’s missing is the equitable supply of vaccines.”   Fore and Tedros note that “health workers have been on the frontlines of the pandemic in lower- and middle-income settings and should be protected first so they can protect us”. 

To ensure that vaccine rollouts begin in all countries in the first 100 days of 2021, UNICEF and WHO want that governments that have vaccinated their own health workers and populations at the highest risk of severe disease to share vaccines through COVAX so other countries can do the same.

The UN agencies want that Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator and COVAX are fully funded so that financing and technical support are available to lower- and middle-income countries for deploying and administering vaccines. If fully funded, they say, ACT Accelerator could return up to US$ 166 for every dollar invested.

The UN urges vaccine manufacturers to allocate the limited vaccine supply equitably; share safety, efficacy and manufacturing data as a priority with WHO for regulatory and policy review; step up and maximize production; and transfer technology to other manufacturers who can help scale the global supply.

 “We need global leadership to scale up vaccine production and achieve vaccine equity,” the UNICEF and WHO chiefs stress”.  “Covid-19 has shown that our fates are inextricably linked. Whether we win or lose, we will do so together,” they stress.

A brick in the wall of equality

Earlier on January 18, Tedros denounced the “me-first approach” to Covid-19 vaccines on the part of some countries and manufacturers, warning that it is putting equitable access to these lifesaving treatments at risk.  While vaccines bring hope to some,  he said, they become “another brick in the wall of inequality between the world’s haves and have-nots”.   He reported that while 39 million doses had been administered in nearly 50 richer countries, only 25 had been given in one lowest income nation.

Pope Francis

Even before the vaccines were ready, Pope Francis had been insisting on equitable access to them, especially among the poorer nations of the world. “I encourage all states to contribute actively to the international efforts being made to ensure an equitable distribution of the vaccines, based not on purely economic criteria but on the needs of all, especially of peoples most in need,” he said in his latest appeal on February 8, while addressing the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See.   

UN chief

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also called for massive and speedy COVID-19 vaccination campaigns in both developed and developing countries, urging rich nations to make their excess doses available to poorer ones.

"If we believe it is possible to vaccinate the global north and forget about the global south; if you let the virus spread like wildfire in the global south, it will mutate," and become resistant to the newly developed vaccines, he warned while addressing in a virtual presentation at the World Economic Forum's Davos Agenda on January 25.

Among the several priorities he outlined in a speech to the General Assembly on January 28, he said the response to Covid-19 was the first.  “Vaccines are the first great moral test before us.  These must be seen as global public goods — people’s vaccines — available and affordable to all,” he said. “But, the world is falling short.  Vaccines are reaching a handful of countries quickly, while the poorest countries have almost none,” he lamented.  

11 February 2021, 15:37