GENEVA (Reuters) – Countries seeking their own COVID-19 vaccine doses are making deals with drug companies that threaten the supply for the global COVAX programme for poor and middle-income countries, the World Health Organization said on Friday.
“Now, some countries are still pursuing deals that will compromise the COVAX supply. Without a doubt,” WHO senior adviser Bruce Aylward told a briefing.
The WHO has long called upon rich countries to ensure that vaccines are shared equitably. The global organization is one of the leaders of COVAX, a programme that aims to supply 1.3 billion vaccine doses to poor and middle income countries this year. But so far, COVAX has had a slow rollout.
“We can’t beat COVID without vaccine equity. Our world will not recover fast enough without vaccine equity, this is clear,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
“We have made great progress. But that progress is fragile. We need to accelerate the supply and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, and we cannot do that if some countries continue to approach manufacturers who are producing vaccines that COVAX is counting on.”
“These actions undermine COVAX and deprive health workers and vulnerable people around the world of life-saving vaccines.”
Tedros also called for countries to waive intellectual property rules, to allow other countries to make vaccines more quickly.
“If not now, when?” he asked.
The idea of temporarily waiving intellectual property rights for tools to fight COVID-19 is set to come up again next week at a meeting of World Trade Organization (WTO) member states. In the past, it has run into opposition from rich countries with big pharmaceutical industries.
Incoming WTO head Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria has said her top priority would be to ensure the trade body does more to address the COVID-19 pandemic, calling disparities in vaccine rates between rich and poor “unconscionable”.
The 164-member WTO body usually has to agree by consensus unless members agree to proceed to a rare vote.
(Additional by Michael Shields an Alexis Akwagyiram; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Louise Heavens, Aurora Ellis and Hugh Lawson)