By Robin Gomes
The United Nations health agency has appealed again to the world’s richer countries to donate Covid-19 vaccines to help poorer countries that have yet to start their vaccination programme. Speaking at a virtual press conference on Friday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), said they urgently need 10 million doses for COVAX, the vaccine sharing programme by the WHO and its international partners to buy and deliver Covid-19 vaccines for the world’s poorest people.
“COVAX is ready to deliver but we can't deliver vaccines we don't have,” Ghebreyesus said. “Bilateral deals, export bans, and vaccine nationalism have caused distortions in the market with gross inequities in supply and demand,” he said. “Ten million doses are not much, and it's not nearly enough.”
Starting vaccination within 100 days of 2021
At the start of 2021, Ghebreyesus had appealed to countries to work together to ensure that vaccination starts in all the countries of the world within the first 100 days of the year, or by April 10. “177 countries and economies have started vaccination. In just one month, COVAX has distributed more than 32 million vaccines to 61 countries,” he said. Of the 36 countries that are still waiting for vaccines so they can start inoculating health workers and older people, 16 are scheduled to receive their first doses from COVAX within the next 15 days. That leaves 20 nations still waiting.
Ghebreyesus pointed out that getting all countries to start vaccination by the 100th day is not an impossible task. COVAX immediately needs 10 million doses as a stop-gap measure, to help these 20 countries begin vaccinating their healthcare workers and the elderly within the coming 2 weeks.
“So today, I am asking countries with doses of vaccines that have WHO emergency use listing, to donate as many doses as they can to help us meet that target,” the WHO chief said. He also urged manufacturers to help ensure these countries can rapidly donate those doses.
His appeal came soon after India, the world's biggest vaccine maker said it would make domestic inoculations a priority after a spike in new infections. The move will hit COVAX supplies as some of AstraZeneca's vaccine is produced by the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer.
India on Friday registered a record 59,000 new Covid-19 cases in a 24-hour period. While acknowledging India’s needs, Ghebreyesus said talks were going with the country to find a balance between domestic and international needs.
Currently, many countries who had invested in COVAX in good faith have become frustrated with bilateral deals that have left the vaccine initiative short, Ghebreyesus said. “WHO and our partners are continuing to work around the clock to find ways to increase production and secure doses”, he said, adding, four more vaccines were being studied for WHO Emergency Use Listing – at least one of which may be approved by the end of April.
Priority to seafarers, aircrew
In related coverage, five UN agencies on Friday urged prioritizing Covid-19 vaccinations for seafarers and aircrews who have been severely impacted by pandemic-imposed travel restrictions.
“Seafarers and aircrew need to be protected through vaccination as soon as possible to facilitate their safe movement across borders”, said the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), International Labour Organization (ILO), International Maritime Organization (IMO), International Organization for Migration (IOM) and WHO, in a joint statement.
They called upon countries that have not done so to “designate seafarers and aircrew as key workers”. “We also call on governments to identify and prepare for the challenges of COVID-19 vaccination of seafarers and aircrew, particularly for seafarers spending long periods of time away from their home country”, they added.
With more than 30 million infections, the United States has more cases than another country, followed by Brazil, with 12.3 million, and India, with 11.8 million.