WHO appeals to rich countries on vaccines

Published January 9, 2021, 8:02 AM

by Agence France-Presse

LONDON – Europe rushed to bulk-buy more coronavirus vaccine doses and approved more drugs on Friday, as the World Health Organization called on wealthy nations not to hog all the available jabs and millions in Asia faced tough restrictions over isolated outbreaks.

The pandemic has already killed 1.9 million people out of 88 million infections and is picking up speed, with 14 percent more cases reported globally per day this week compared to the previous seven days, according to an AFP count.

This handout TV grab taken on January 5, 2021 shows World Health Organization (WHO) Ethiopian Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a press briefing on Covid-19 (novel coronavirus) via video link from the WHO headquarters in Geneva.
(Photo by – / World Health Organization / AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

As the world races for vaccines, the European Union said it had agreed an option for a further 300 million jabs from Pfizer/BioNTech, doubling its supply of the drug.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc would have “more than enough” doses for its entire population thanks to the new deal as well as forthcoming approvals of other vaccines including a jab developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

Britain, freshly departed from the EU, approved its third vaccine on Friday from US firm Moderna, keeping ahead of its neighbors in terms of vaccines
available and numbers inoculated.

But the WHO urged rich countries to stop cutting their own deals with manufacturers to snap up the first wave of vaccines, potentially bumping up the price for everyone else.

“No country is exceptional and should cut the queue and vaccinate all their population, while some remain with no supply,” WHO chief Tedros
Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, pushing wealthier countries to free up excess doses for the globally-shared Covax program.

Bruce Aylward, the WHO lead on Covax, said that “50 percent of the high-income countries in the world are vaccinating today. Zero percent of the
low-income countries are vaccinating. That is not equitable.”

“There’s a clear problem that low- and most middle-income countries are not receiving the vaccine yet,” Tedros told a virtual news conference from WHO’s headquarters in Geneva.

“At the outset, rich countries have bought up the majority of the supply of multiple vaccines.”

Tedros said 42 countries had started rolling out their COVID-19 vaccination programme — 36 high-income nations and six middle-income states.

“I urge countries that have contracted more vaccines than they will need, and are controlling the global supply, to also donate and release them to Covax immediately, which is ready today to roll out quickly,” he said.

“And I urge countries and manufacturers to stop making bilateral deals at the expense of Covax.”

‘Zero percent’

Covax, the WHO co-led globally-pooled vaccine procurement and distribution effort, has struck agreements for two billion vaccine doses.

It aims to secure vaccines for 20 percent of the population in each participating country by the end of the year, with funding covered for the 92 lower- and lower-middle income economies involved in the scheme.

The facility is awaiting delivery on contracts for two billion doses of vaccines and has first refusal on another billion.

Aylward said the vaccine distribution so far had left vulnerable older people and front-line health workers in poorer countries more exposed to the virus.

“They are not being protected at the same rates,” he said.

“Fifty percent of the high-income countries in the world are vaccinating today. Zero percent of the low-income countries are vaccinating. That is not equitable.”

New strain fears

Despite nearly a year of intermittent restrictions across the globe, many countries are still recording record numbers of coronavirus cases, including Britain which on Friday announced new highs of 1,325 deaths and 68,053 cases over 24 hours.

“The stark reality is that we will run out of beds for patients in the next couple of weeks unless the spread of the virus slows down drastically,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said, declaring a “major incident” in the capital.

Romania became the latest country to confirm a case of the UK strain, in a 27-year-old woman who had not recently left the country, suggesting the variant had been in the country for some time.

Australia locked down its third-largest city Brisbane after detecting a single infection of the UK strain, with officials having to urge people to stop panic-buying as large queues formed outside shops.