February 2, 2023

WHO turns to China and Russia as COVAX vaccine delay leaves millions a dose short

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Covid-19 vaccine deliveries through COVAX have since Monday, “all but halted,” and deliveries of currently authorized vaccines could be stalled “until as late as June,” the Associated Press reported Saturday. Facing a vaccine shortage and no hope for a quick turnaround in supply, the WHO is now looking at China and Russia as possible candidates to supply COVAX.

This delay – besides dampening confidence in the COVAX Facility and governments reliant on it – has prompted widespread concern for people “in at least 60 countries” who are “stalled at the first shots of their coronavirus vaccines.” Although one dose grants greater protection relative to no vaccination, it is not as effective as the full vaccine.

This comes during a period of greater urgency to administer vaccines as Covid-19 variants have contributed to rises in cases and placed renewed strain on health systems around the world.

In total, COVAX has delivered a paltry 38 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to 98 countries; the U.S. is administering 4 million vaccines daily and the UK on its own cleared more vaccines for use in the past two weeks than COVAX did.

This delay in deliveries can be attributed to a greater vaccine shortage. In March, India announced it would temporally halt exports of its AstraZeneca vaccines from the Serum Institute of India (SII) until as late as June amid a steep rise in domestic cases and a reported shortage of vaccine materials – in part due to U.S. restrictions on raw material exports, the BBC reported.

India, whose cases on Saturday reached an all-time high, now leads the world in the number of daily cases.

Other vaccine producing countries have not stepped in to supply COVAX with vaccines; instead countries – the U.S. and EU – have continued to donate billions in their respective currencies to the Facility. But as the AP reported, “there are simply no doses to buy, and no country has agreed to immediately share what it has.”

To make matters worse, there is now concern about the side effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has reportedly caused blood clots in some patients and was slated to “supply around a third of the global population”. Today News Africa also pointed out that many African leaders have received this vaccine.

According to GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, the vaccine delay has “affected” around 60 countries. The delay in deliveries and concerns of the AstraZeneca vaccine have prompted the WHO to “‘expedite review of additional products’ from China and Russia”; Chinese vaccines – though information on vaccines from Sinopharm and Sinovac  remains murky – could be authorized by the end of April, the WHO has said.

For the past month the EU has reviewed Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, which besides a lack of transparency surrounding its development and efficacy, recently made headlines as the President of Argentina, who had received the Russian vaccine, tested positive for Covid-19.

The Managing Director of COVAX had earlier this week expressed optimism about COVAX achieving its goal of delivering 2 billion doses by the end of 2021, 1.3 billion of which would be “donor-funded” and go to the 92 low- and middle income countries eligible for the COVAX AMC – though this initiative would only vaccinate 20 percent of the population by the end of the year, the WHO noted in December.

In order to vaccinate the world’s population as quickly as possible, it may be time for COVAX to source vaccines globally, but for COVAX and the world’s sake, they must first be “safe and effective”.

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