Rich countries get new COVID vaccine before poorer ones despite UN-backed initiative

The company behind a COVID-19 vaccine touted as a key tool for the developing world has sent tens of millions of doses to wealthy countries, but has yet to provide any to the effort supported by the to supply the poorest countries, a sign that inequality persists in the world. response to the pandemic.

A quarter of a million doses from the company were supposed to be available for the vaccine-sharing initiative, called COVAX, by March. But the UN agency in charge of deliveries says the first deliveries are unlikely to be made until April or May.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The company, Novavax, secured $388 million from one of the organizations running COVAX to accelerate vaccine development and help make the vaccine available in poorer countries.

The investment guaranteed COVAX the “right of first refusal” on the first doses of Novavax, but the agreement only applied to plants in the Czech Republic, South Korea and Spain, said Bjorg Dystvold Nilsson , spokesperson for COVAX co-founder, CEPI.

There are other factories that aren’t part of the deal – and their hits go elsewhere.

The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, has manufactured millions of doses of Novavax. According to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and the institute, more than 28.9 million of these doses were sent to the Netherlands in January and February, while Australia received around 6 million doses. Indonesia also received about 9 million doses in December.

Thousands of other doses of Novavax have also been shipped from a Dutch factory to other EU countries.

“Whatever the reason, a vaccine once thought to be perfectly suited for poor countries is now largely destined for rich countries,” said Zain Rizvi, a pharmaceutical policy expert at the US advocacy group Public Citizen. . “It is tragic that in the third year of the pandemic, we still cannot get the resources, attention and political will needed to address vaccine inequities.”

The delay is the latest setback for COVAX, which has been repeatedly hit by supply issues and has missed many targets share the doses.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, last year denounced the chasm in the supply of vaccines between rich and poor countries as a “catastrophic moral failure”.

Vaccine availability has recently improved in poorer areas, but logistical challenges persist.

According to data from the University of Oxford, only around 14% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. More than 680 million doses of vaccines supplied by COVAX remain unused or have expired, according to government data.

Even with the improved vaccine supply, some officials eagerly awaited the Novavax vaccine, particularly because it is easier to transport and store than some other coronavirus vaccines. They also hoped it might be more appealing to people skeptical of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has undergone a botched deployment in Europe.

Countries like Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic and Kiribati were among those in line to be offered doses of Novavax by March by COVAX.

Before the pandemic, Novavax was a small American company that had never brought a vaccine to market. His shots have proven to be very effective, but he relies heavily on other companies to pull them off.

The company, which is struggling to increase production, has also delayed delivery to other countries, including some in the European Union. COVAX is believed to receive over one billion doses of Novavax.

In a statement, the Gaithersburg, Maryland-based company acknowledged that it has not yet shared vaccines with the Gavi vaccine alliance, which is leading the COVAX effort, but said it was open to do it.

“We continue to work with Gavi to achieve our shared goal of ensuring global access to our protein-based vaccine where it is needed most,” Novavax said.

Gavi suggested that part of the delay is because the Novavax vaccine was not authorized by the WHO until December. Gavi said it plans to allocate Novavax in the future and is “in close contact with the manufacturer and expects supply to be available for delivery when countries need it”.

Health officials also fear that the urgency to vaccinate people everywhere against COVID-19 has faded — especially as many countries roll back precautions and the world’s attention is diverted.

“Rich countries have given up on COVID and everyone is obsessed with the war in Ukraine, but COVID-19 remains an acute crisis for most people around the world,” said Ritu Sharma, vice president of the CARE charity.

She said COVAX was still desperately short of vaccines and that, based on the current pace of vaccination, the world was still “years and years away” from vaccinating enough people to stop future waves of COVID-19.

Other experts said it was up to public health agencies to make sure their investments in vaccines would benefit poor countries and to be more transparent about what went wrong.

“Whatever the explanation, it’s not satisfactory,” said Brook Baker, a medicine access specialist at Northeastern University. “The bottom line is that there are still a lot of unvaccinated people in poor countries and again they are at the back of the queue.”