Let poor countries make Covid vaccines, says UN report

Published April 6, 2021
A woman receives her first dose of China's Sinovac Biotech vaccine during a mass vaccination program for the elderly at Movistar Arena in Bogota on March 9. — Reuters
A woman receives her first dose of China's Sinovac Biotech vaccine during a mass vaccination program for the elderly at Movistar Arena in Bogota on March 9. — Reuters

UNITED NATIONS: Enabling poorer countries to make Covid-19 vaccines is the only effective way of defeating the pandemic that has already killed almost three million people, says a UN report released on Monday.

The United Nations has launched a global campaign called COVAX to get two billion vaccine doses to inoculate around a quarter of the world’s poor by the end of 2021. The report — “How can we vaccinate the world” — reviews the main challenges the campaign faces and suggests five major steps to overcome those challenges.

Identifying export controls and lack of distribution facilities as key hurdles preventing global vaccination, the report says: “Poorer countries will have a much better chance of protecting their citizens if they are able to manufacture vaccines themselves.”

Diane Abad-Vergara, COVAX communications lead for the World Health Organisation (WHO), was also interviewed for this report and said that her agency “supports countries in their efforts to acquire and sustain vaccine production technology and capacity.”

She noted that initiatives like the Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network help poorer countries build additional manufacturing bases. “Expanding production globally would make poor countries less dependent on donations from rich ones,” she added.

Another UN agency, Unicef, built up a stockpile of half a billion syringes in warehouses outside the countries producing them. And “its foresight paid off: countries put export controls on syringes, prices spiked, and supplies were limited,” the report pointed out.

Since the onset of the pandemic, WHO has issued several warnings against “vaccine nationalism”, as it “encourages hoarding, and has the effect of pushing prices up and ultimately prolonging the pandemic.”

The UN report also pointed out that whilst all of the countries that are part of COVAX had the infrastructure needed to get pallets of vaccines off cargo planes and into refrigerated warehouses, not all had an effective distribution network.

“This means that, in many poorer countries, most doses are being distributed in large urban centres,” said Gian Gandhi, Unicef’s global COVAX coordinator.

The report also urged rich nations to provide more funds to the COVAX campaign to speed up the vaccine rollout, and the delivery from urban warehouses to remote areas.

“To continue providing vaccines to its 190 members, COVAX needs at least $3.2 billion in 2021,” said Ms. Abad-Vergara. “The faster that this funding target is achieved, the faster that vaccines can get into people’s arms.”

Unicef estimates that an additional $2 billion is needed to help the poorest 92 countries to pay for essentials such as fridges, health worker training, expenses for vaccinators, and fuel for the refrigerated delivery trucks. The agency has urged donors to make $510m of this available immediately to address urgent needs.

The UN report also urged richer countries to share excess doses. It pointed out that the COVAX campaign often found itself in competition with individual countries doing direct deals with pharmaceutical companies, putting extra pressure on the available supply of COVID-19 vaccines.

“At the same time, richer countries may find themselves with an over-supply of doses,” the report added. The campaign warned that this ‘me first’ approach would ultimately cost more in saving lives. “We’re calling on these countries to share their excess doses, and engage with COVAX and Unicef as soon as possible”, said Mr. Gandhi.

The report noted that despite the overwhelming evidence that vaccination saved lives, vaccine hesitancy still existed in every country and “that needs to be constantly addressed.”

“Throughout the pandemic there has been a huge amount of misinformation swirling around”, said Ms. Abad-Vergara. “WHO is working hard to combat it, as well as building trust in vaccines, and engaging different communities”.

Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2021

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