Ghana has become the first country to receive vaccines through the UN-backed COVAX scheme, which aims to get COVID-19 vaccines to the world’s most vulnerable people, in a global effort to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
A flight carrying 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India landed in Ghana’s capital, Accra, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), said in a joint statement on Wednesday.
The delivery comes almost a year after the WHO first described the novel coronavirus as a global pandemic and eight months after the launch of the COVAX initiative, aimed at pooling funds from wealthier countries and non-profits to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and distribute it equitably around the world.
“This is a momentous occasion, as the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines into Ghana is critical in bringing the pandemic to an end,” Anne-Claire Dufay of UNICEF Ghana, and WHO country representative, Francis Kasolo, said in the statement.
“These 600,000 COVAX vaccines are part of an initial tranche of deliveries … which represent part of the first wave of COVID vaccines headed to several low and middle-income countries.”
The shots will be used to kick-start a vaccination drive that will prioritise front-line healthcare workers and others at high-risk, according to a plan presented by Ghanaian health officials on Friday.
“The shipments … represent the beginning of what should be the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history,” the statement added.
The COVAX Facility plans to deliver close to 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines this year.
This is an unprecedented global effort to make sure all citizens have access to vaccines. pic.twitter.com/ItvX8nEkPN
— UNICEF (@UNICEF) February 24, 2021
The roll-out in Ghana is a milestone for the initiative that is trying to narrow a politically sensitive gap between the millions of people being vaccinated in wealthier countries and the comparatively few who have received shots in less-developed parts of the world.
It aims to deliver a total of 2.3 billion doses by year-end, including 1.8 billion to poorer countries at no cost to their governments, and to cover up to 20 percent of countries’ populations. But it will not be sufficient for nations to reach herd immunity and effectively contain the spread of the virus.
“No-one is safe until everyone is safe … multilateral collaboration is the best way to defeat this pandemic,” a spokesperson from the GAVI vaccine alliance told Al Jazeera earlier this month.
“Global equitable access to a vaccine, particularly protecting healthcare workers and those most at risk … is the only way to mitigate the public health and economic impact of the pandemic on individuals, communities, and nations.”
The African Union (AU) has been trying to help its 55 member states buy more doses in a push to immunise 60 percent of the continent’s 1.3 billion people over three years. Last week, its vaccine team said 270 million doses of AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines secured for delivery this year had been taken up.
China has donated small batches of its Sinopharm vaccine to countries including Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea. And Russia has offered to supply 300 million doses of its Sputnik V vaccine to the African Union scheme along with a financing package.
But many countries are largely reliant on COVAX.
On Tuesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged wealthy nations to share vaccine doses with COVAX, saying the goal of equitable distribution was “in jeopardy”.
“So far 210 million doses of vaccine have been administered globally but half of those are in just two countries,” Tedros said in Geneva.
COVAX is co-led by the WHO, the GAVI vaccines alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and UNICEF.