With the number of new COVID-19 cases nearly doubling over the past two months, approaching the highest infection rate the world has seen during the pandemic, the unequal distribution of vaccines is not only a moral outrage, but economically and epidemiologically self-defeating, the head of the UN health agency told a special ministerial meeting of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on Friday.
The Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, created by WHO and its partners, along with the COVAX Facility, can prevent mistakes of the past – when the world 40 years ago was slow to deploy lifesaving antiretrovirals to poor countries during the HIV and AIDS crisis. Today, while COVAX has distributed 40 million doses to 100 countries, this is nowhere near enough. WHO had expected to distribute 100 million doses by now. Some countries have received nothing, none have received enough – and some are not receiving second-round allocation on time.
WHO is working with the Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to ramp up production and supply. A COVAX manufacturing task force has been formed, and promisingly, a New Partnership for African Manufacturing will be formed by the African Union. It aims to build five vaccine production hubs on the continent, starting with three mRNA facilities in Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa. WHO is also developing regional regulatory capacity through the African Medicines Agency.
WHO will continue to provide technical assistance and add manufacturing bases across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Never in its 75-year history has the role of the United Nations been more important.
There is untapped potential in developing countries to ramp up production, and resources are available to bankroll such investment. WTO members have reduced export restrictions from 109 in nearly 90 countries, to 51 in 62 countries, and with pragmatic engagement they can find ways to bridge intellectual property rights concerns.
Munir Akram, President of ECOSOC, stressed that in addition to being a moral imperative, universal vaccine coverage is the only realistic way out of the pandemic. He called for ramping up production, addressing intellectual property issues, supporting weak health systems in developing countries, removing export restrictions – and importantly – funding the WHO ACT Accelerator and COVAX facility. Decisive steps towards universal access is a prerequisite for economic recovery, he assured. He pressed Governments to recommit to the principles of human solidarity and cooperation, stressing that progress made to date is the result of countries working with hundreds of companies and thousands of scientists – “multilateralism at its finest”. Towards the goal of “vaccines for all” he also urged countries to extend resources to COVAX; invest in vaccine research, production and distribution; donate vaccines to countries in need and tackle misinformation to ensure everyone is educated on the benefits of inoculation.