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WHO slams rich states for hogging vaccines

Published on February 22, 2021

The World Health Organization on Monday blasted wealthy countries for not only hogging Covid vaccines but in doing so, hindering the pathway for poorer nations to get them too.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said some rich countries’ direct deals with manufacturers had meant that previously-agreed vaccine allocations for poorer countries, via the Covax programme, were being reduced.

The UN health agency chief said money was available to procure doses for some of the poorest countries, following fresh contributions from the United States, the European Union and Germany — but it was worthless if there was nothing to buy.

Tedros urged wealthy nations to check whether their own deals with pharmaceutical companies were undermining Covax, which poorer countries are relying on as they await their first doses.

“Even if you have the money, if you cannot use the money to buy vaccines, having the money doesn’t mean anything,” he told a virtual press conference with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

– ‘Respect the deals’ –

The ONE Campaign, an organisation co-founded by U2 singer Bono, said last week that members of the Group of Seven top industrialised nations along with the rest of the EU plus Australia had collectively bought nearly 1.25 billion more doses than they needed to inoculate every member of their populations against Covid-19.

“Some high-income countries are actually approaching manufacturers to secure more vaccines, which is affecting the deals with Covax — and even the amount that was allocated for Covax was reduced because of this,” Tedros said.

“We can only have vaccines delivered to the countries who are members of Covax if the high-income countries cooperate in respecting the deals that Covax did.”

The first wave of Covax vaccines are to be shipped out between late February and the end of June.

Some 145 participating economies are set to receive 337.2 million doses — enough to vaccinate a little over three percent of their combined populations.

Covax has said it hopes to raise the figure to up to 27 percent in lower-income countries by the end of December.

– ‘Increase the pie’ –

The world’s biggest vaccine maker, India’s Serum Institute, on Monday urged other countries to be “patient” about it supplying anti-coronavirus shots, saying it has been instructed to prioritise its home market.

Steinmeier said that although countries were focused on protecting their own citizens from coronavirus, it made sense for the wealthier nations speeding ahead in the vaccine race to ensure that people in poorer nations were jabbed at the same time.

“Governments are first and foremost — and understandably so — committed to their respective publics,” he said.

However, “if we refuse to grant the necessary solidarity, we must not be surprised if other countries come in to fill this vacuum by delivering earlier what is required — and using that for their own purposes.”

The European Commission is working with pharmaceutical giants to ramp up production of vaccines to between two and three billion doses per year, more than enough for the EU population of 450 million.

Visiting the Pfizer-BioNTech plant in Puurs, Belgium, EU Commissioner Thierry Breton said the goal was for Europe to become the number one vaccine producing continent, but that its neighbours would not be forgotten.

The EU internal market commissioner said the huge Belgian plant would itself be producing more than a billion doses per year by the end of 2021 and that around half of these were bound for export.

“But it’s also important for us to be able, very quickly, to begin giving these doses to all those who need them, in particular our African friends,” Breton told reporters.

Earlier, Tedros called for intellectual property rights on Covid-19 medical goods to be waived — a move which could facilitate greater knowledge-sharing and the rapid scale-up of production sites.

The idea, currently before the World Trade Organization, is staunchly opposed by pharmaceutical giants.

Tedros also urged pharmaceutical companies that were not making their own Covid-19 vaccines to turn over their facilities to produce other companies’ doses, as Sanofi has done for the Pfizer-BioNTech jab.

“If we increase the pie, then better opportunities to share it equitably too.”

Steinmeier however said he did not think a waiver for patents or licensing “would be the right approach”.

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