Free Covid-19 vaccine rollout to world’s poorest countries will begin next year

WHO strikes supply deals with pharmaceutical companies for two billion doses

FILE PHOTO: An employee in personal protective equipment (PPE) removes vials of AstraZeneca's COVISHIELD, coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine from a visual inspection machine inside a lab at Serum Institute of India, Pune, India, November 30, 2020. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas/File Photo

Up to two billion doses of coronavirus vaccines will be delivered to the world’s poorest countries next year, the World Health Organisation said on Friday.

The new deals brokered by the WHO’s Covax initiative with drug companies roughly doubles the supply for low and middle-income countries.

Covax, a partnership between the WHO and the Gavi Vaccine Alliance, aims to deliver at least 1.3 billion doses to 92 eligible countries next year.

The Gavi Alliance, formerly the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, is a global health partnership of public and private sector organizations dedicated to “immunisation for all”.

The fresh purchase agreements include the supply of 170 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, and a deal with Johnson & Johnson for 500 million doses of its inoculation.

Those deals are in addition to existing agreements with the Serum Institute of India for 200 million doses. There is also the option for up to 900 million more doses of either the AstraZeneca/Oxford or Novavax vaccines.

The first doses are expected to arrive in the first quarter of 2021. However, the distribution is contingent on approval by medicines regulators and the readiness of the countries involved.

The WHO said the new agreements were “the clearest pathway yet to end the acute phase of the pandemic by protecting the most vulnerable populations”.

“The arrival of vaccines is giving all of us a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus added.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), gestures as he speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday, March 2, 2020. More than $1.1 trillion was wiped off the value of developing-nation stocks and bonds last week as the economic impact of the coronavirus worsened. Photographer: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“But we will only truly end the pandemic if we end it everywhere at the same time, which means it’s essential to vaccinate some people in all countries, rather than all people in some countries.”

The value of the deals with pharmaceutical companies was not released but the total contribution to the Covax initiative from governments was $2.4 billion.

The body estimates it will need to raise at least another $6.8 billion next year to achieve its aims.

AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot said his company’s arrangement with the Covax initiative was made on a not-for-profit basis, piling pressure on other drug makers to do the same.

The announcement of new supply arrangements comes after concerns the initiative would fail.

Internal documents seen by Reuters suggested the scheme had a “very high” risk of failure as the rollout was struggling from a lack of funds, supply risks and complex contractual arrangements.