COVID-19: UN calls for more support for ‘people’s vaccine’ plan

A total of 168 countries join UN’s COVID-19 vaccine plan as UK, Canada and Germany pledge nearly $1bn in funds.

A woman holds a small bottle labeled with a 'Vaccine COVID-19' sticker and a medical syringe in this illustration taken April 10, 2020. [File: Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters]

Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, has again called for a “quantum leap in support” for a global vaccine plan to contain the coronavirus pandemic, as the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and Sweden promised nearly $1bn in funds to support developing nations secure access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

The Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator and its COVAX facility – led by the World Health Organization and GAVI vaccine alliance – has received $3bn, but needs a further $35bn, of which $15bn is required by the end of the year.

The initiative aims to deliver two billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021, 245 million treatments and 500 million tests.

Some 168 countries have now signed up to COVAX, the UN said.

“It is in every country’s national and economic self-interest to work together to massively expand access to tests and treatments, and to support a vaccine as a global public good – a ‘people’s vaccine’ available and affordable for everyone, everywhere,” Guterres said on Wednesday at a high-level virtual UN event on the programme.

The UN chief said the ACT-Accelerator was the only safe and certain way to reopen the global economy quickly, but warned that the programme needed an immediate injection of $15bn to “avoid losing the window of opportunity” for advance purchase and production, to build stocks in parallel with licensing, boost research, and help countries prepare.

“We cannot allow a lag in access to further widen already vast inequalities,” Guterres said.

“But let’s be clear: we will not get there with donors simply allocating resources only from the Official Development Assistance budget,” he said. “It is time for countries to draw funding from their own response and recovery programmes.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO chief, said the financing gap was less than 1 percent of what the world’s 20 largest economies (G20) had committed to domestic stimulus packages and “roughly equivalent to what the world spends on cigarettes every two weeks”.

Solidarity pledges

The UK pledged 500 million British pounds ($641m) to support poorer countries gain access to a COVID-19 vaccine, while Canada committed 220 million Canadian dollars ($166m) and Germany promised 100 million euros ($116m) for the same.

Johnson & Johnson Chief Executive Alex Gorsky also committed 500 million vaccine doses for low-income countries with delivery starting in mid-2021.

“Having access to lifesaving COVID diagnostics, therapeutics or vaccines … shouldn’t depend on where you live, whether you’re rich or poor,” said Gorsky, adding that while Johnson & Johnson is “acting at an unprecedented scale and speed, we are not for a minute cutting corners on safety”.

US President Donald Trump has said that a vaccine against the virus might be ready before the country’s November 3 presidential election, raising questions about whether political pressure might result in the deployment of a vaccine before it is safe.

“We remain 100 percent committed to high ethical and scientific principles,” Gorsky said.

GAVI Chief Executive Seth Berkley said that so far 168 countries, including 76 self-financing states, had joined the COVAX global vaccines facility. “I urge those who are wavering urgently to join us,” he said.

Tedros said that represented 70 percent of the world’s population, adding: “The list is growing every day.”

China, Russia and the United States have not joined the facility, although WHO officials have said they are still holding talks with China about signing up. The US has reached its own deals with vaccine developers.

The World Bank meanwhile committed $12bn to support developing countries to purchase COVID-19 vaccines as soon as they are available. The plan still needs to be ratified by the global institution’s shareholders.

David Malpass, president of the World Bank, said the pandemic could push 150 million people into extreme poverty by 2021 and the effect could last decades.

“Broad, rapid and affordable access to COVID vaccines will be at the core of a resilient global economic recovery that lifts everyone,” he said.

Billionaire Bill Gates told the UN event that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had signed an agreement with 16 pharmaceutical companies on Wednesday.

“In this agreement, the companies commit to, among other things, scaling up manufacturing, at an unprecedented speed, and making sure that approved vaccines reach broad distribution as early as possible,” Gates said.

Britain’s foreign secretary Dominic Raab – a co-host of the meeting along with Guterres, the WHO and South Africa – urged other countries to join the global effort, saying the ACT-Accelerator is the best hope of bringing the pandemic under control.

In a statement, the UN said ACT-Accelerator – since its launch five months ago – has made 120 million tests available to low and middle-income countries and ensured the rapid roll-out of Dexamethasone, the only drug found to make a significant difference to mortality in COVID-19 patients.

“We must confront this health crisis as a global challenge, together in solidarity and cooperation with one another, working toward a global solution. We have to generate the key tests, treatments and vaccines that we all need, and make sure they are distributed equitably to people who most need them, regardless of where they live and whether their country is wealthy or not,” said South Africa’s Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, adding that large parts of the population, especially in developing countries, remain “vulnerable and marginalised during this pandemic”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies