WHO-linked plan to start global vaccine rollout in first half of 2021

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Francisco Seco


European Council President Charles Michel, left, welcomes WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus before their meeting in Brussels earlier this month.

A multilateral effort to develop and distribute vaccines has secured almost 2 billion doses, potentially allowing some vulnerable groups in participating countries to get vaccinated in the first half of next year, the World Health Organization said Friday.

The announcement came in an end-of-year update on the Covax Facility, a plan to ensure that low- and middle-income countries are not cut out of a vaccine race that has seen rich countries snap up the majority of early doses, leaving the rest of the world to wait.

At a news conference on Friday, officials from the WHO, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, touted progress toward reversing that trend, at least a little, announcing deals with AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

Officials from Canada and France said they were working to develop and fund a mechanism for rich countries to eventually share surplus vaccine doses through Covax, though they did not offer details on when that might start.

“The arrival of vaccines is giving all of us a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday. “But we will only truly end the pandemic if we end it everywhere at the same time, which means it’s essential to vaccinate some people in all countries, rather than all people in some countries.”

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Tedros cast the update as good news for an initiative that has struggled to secure funding and support from big players including the United States, which has declined to participate.

But his upbeat tone belied growing concern that hoarding by rich countries will leave much of the world without an adequate vaccine supply.

In recent weeks, as the United States, Britain and Canada have cheered the rollout of domestic vaccination campaigns, other countries have scrambled to secure doses of as-yet-unproven candidates.

By mid-November, wealthy nations had reserved 51 percent of various vaccine doses even though they are home to only 14 percent of the world’s population, according to a new study published by two Johns Hopkins researchers in the BMJ, a journal published by the British Medical Association.

An earlier study by researchers at Duke University estimated that people in low-income countries could be waiting for a coronavirus vaccine until 2024.

Covax on Friday announced new deals with drug companies, including an advance purchase agreement with AstraZeneca for 170 million doses and a memorandum of understanding for 500 million doses from Johnson & Johnson.

These deals will build on existing agreements with India’s Serum Institute for 200 million doses, plus options for up to 900 million doses more of either the AstraZeneca or Novavax candidates, as well as a statement of intent for 200 million doses from Sanofi/GSK, according to the WHO.

The U.N. health agency said Friday that at least 1.3 billion donor-funded doses will be made available to 92 relatively poor countries by the end of 2021.

But the figures are estimates. The WHO noted that vaccines are still being evaluated. As it waits for results, the agency will “continue developing” its vaccine portfolio, it said.

Coronavirus vaccinations have started. But people in Africa face a much longer wait.

In the news conference, Canadian and French officials sketched out plans to share surplus doses through Covax, but details are still scarce.

Karina Gould, Canada’s minister for international development, pledged Canadian money and support for a mechanism to donate or exchange doses. The plan is “not about slowing anyone down, but speeding everyone up,” she said.

Pressed on when Canada will start sharing and whether Canada will vaccinate every Canadian before sharing with others, Gould declined to lay out a specific timeline. Canada, she said, is moving “one day at a time.”

Stéphanie Seydoux, France’s minister for global health, said her country will start sharing “as early as possible” and encouraged other wealthy countries to do the same.

All told, more than 190 countries, representing a large share of the world’s population, have signed on to participate in Covax.

It is seen as one of the only ways that low-income countries will be able to source vaccines. But questions about funding and supply persist.

“We still need more doses, and we still need more money,” Seth Berkley, chief executive of Gavi, said Friday. “But we have a clear path to securing what we need to end the acute stage of this pandemic.”

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, World reports

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