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Saturday, June 19, 2021

Coronavirus vaccines: Will half a billion jabs for poorer countries make a difference?

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The US has pledged to donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as many poorer countries struggle to get their populations vaccinated against coronavirus.

“We have to end Covid-19, not just at home, which we’re doing, but everywhere,” said US President Joe Biden ahead of the G7 summit in the UK.

It sounds like a lot – but what difference will it make?

What has the US promised?

The US has agreed to purchase half a billon doses from Pfizer at a “not for profit” price.

The details are yet to be made public, but it is understood that 200 million doses will be distributed by the end of this year, and then a further 300 million by June 2022.

They will be provided to countries through the international Covax vaccine-sharing scheme and a programme run by the African Union, that aims to vaccinate the most vulnerable 20% of every nation around the world.

The latest US vaccine donation is significantly larger than that pledged by other nations so far.

The World Health Organization (WHO) director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, says the US donation “is a monumental step forward”.

Some other G7 countries have started to donate further doses. Aside from the US, the nations in the G7 are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the UK.

US President Joe Biden

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At a summit in early June, hosted by the Global Alliance for Vaccination and Immunisation (Gavi), it was announced that so far, more than 132 million doses had been shared by various countries.

This included more than 54 million doses available for short-term supply donated by Belgium, Denmark and Japan, as well as additional supplies from Spain and Sweden.

And some countries that ordered large amounts of the vaccine – such as the UK and Canada – are yet to make clear if they will donate any of these doses for use elsewhere.

Are the vaccine donations enough?

The scale of the challenge is huge, and vaccines are needed immediately.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said: “To vaccinate at least 10% of the population in every country by September, we need an additional 250 million… vaccine doses.”

He said 100 million of those doses were needed in June and July.

“Sharing vaccines now is essential for ending the acute phase of the pandemic,” he said.

In February 2021, 1.3 billion doses had been secured for delivery this year to poorer countries, and were expected to be rolled out in the coming months.

The original Covax objective was to deliver two billion doses of vaccine worldwide by the end of this year, but the aim now is to get 1.8 billion doses to 92 lower income economies by early 2022.

One vaccine expert, Prof Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine in the US, outlined the challenge in a tweet , saying “we desperately need a US foreign policy and American leadership to take on this challenge”.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

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And all these commitments are way off the 11 billion doses the WHO estimates are needed to vaccinate the whole world to a level of 70%, the point at which transmission of the virus could be significantly affected.

“The world needs urgent new manufacturing to produce billions more doses within a year, not just commitments to buy the planned inadequate supply,” tweeted Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s global access to medicines programme.

What’s held up getting vaccines out?

One of the main challenges has been the delivery of vaccines.

As of 8 June, the Covax scheme had shipped just 81 million doses to 129 member countries.

That contrasts with over 300 million doses delivered to the US population alone, which means other parts of the world that are relying on Covax are far behind.

The Covax scheme has mostly relied on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine produced in India.

Health worker in Pakistan holding up AZ vials

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However supplies were severely hit in March, April and May after India halted all major exports of the vaccine when it was hit by a massive second wave.

A total of 1.1bn doses of Covishield (AstraZeneca) were ordered from India’s largest manufacturer – the Serum Institute of India (SII).

So far, it has supplied just 30 million doses to Covax, with nearly 190 million doses held up as it struggled to ramp up its production.

It says exports will only resume by the end of the year and that the company is focusing on meeting India’s own needs.

There has also been an issue in some countries about the slow uptake and distribution of vaccines already delivered, with some African nations unable to use doses before they expire.

“While more vaccines are vital, some African countries must ramp up actions to swiftly roll out the vaccines they have,” the WHO said.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine donation from the US may go some way to addressing longer-term demand, but in the short-term, supply and logistical issues are likely to continue to be an obstacle.

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This post courtesy of BBC-World

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