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WHO chief says put more vulnerable persons in line first for COVID-19 vaccine

Posted: Friday, January 22, 2021. 2:25 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Opening this week’s executive board meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO), held virtually from Geneva, Switzerland, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged a rethink of efforts to distribute and reach populations with the various COVID-19 vaccines now on the market, the Associated Press reports.

It’s “not right,” said Tedros, of Ethiopia, that younger, healthier adults in wealthy countries are first in line for the vaccine ahead of older people or health care workers in poorer countries, and charged that most vaccine makers have targeted locations where “profits are highest.”

Tedros lamented that that one poor country, later identified as Guinea in central Africa, received a mere 25 vaccine doses while over 39 million doses have been administered in nearly 50 richer nations, calling that “the brink of a catastrophic moral failure.”

Tedros nonetheless hailed the scientific achievement behind rolling out coronavirus vaccines less than a year after the pandemic erupted in China, where a WHO-backed team has now been deployed to look into origins of the coronavirus.

“Vaccines are the shot in the arm we all need, literally and figuratively,” Tedros said. “But we now face the real danger that even as vaccines bring hope to some, they become another brick in the wall of inequality between the worlds of the world’s haves and have-nots.”

He noted the WHO-backed COVAX program, which aims to get vaccines out to all countries, rich or poor, based on need, has so far secured 2 billion vaccine doses from five producers and options on a billion doses more.

“We aim to start deliveries in February,” he said. “COVAX is ready to deliver what it was created for.” That target date could be a tall order, because a key producer of vaccines for the developing world — the Serum Institute of India — has not confirmed a date and predicted that its rollout might not happen before March or April.

Dr. Clement Martin Auer, a board member from Austria, had sharp words and questions for GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, that also with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations is leading the effort on COVAX. While calling its principles of equal access to vaccines a “fantastic idea,” Auer faulted COVAX as being “slow” and unable to close “crucial numbers” of contracts. He defended the European Union, which counts among its 27 members many of the world’s richest countries, for getting vaccines for its 450 million citizens and being “the single largest donor” in supporting COVAX.

He said GAVI-COVAX early last year had not included mRNA vaccines like those developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna in the COVAX portfolio. “This was a major mistake, taking into account that the mRNAs are the early ones on the market and the gold standards when it comes to COVID vaccines,” Auer said. The WHO has approved Pfizer-BioNTech for emergency use against coronavirus and could approve Moderna this week.

Dr. Bruce Aylward, a special adviser to Tedros, said that the WHO was in “detailed discussions with Pfizer. We believe very soon we will have access to that product.” He said the mRNA vaccines are “important” but are “extremely difficult” — alluding to cold-chain requirements, among other things, and are “extremely expensive.”

“What we are gunning for is to get 20% of the world, at least, vaccinated this year, and more ideally,” Aylward said. “We are in a strong position to move out with vaccines globally. We just need the assistance of our member states, in particular, to make sure that becomes the reality.”


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