The world is on the brink of a “catastrophic moral failure” if rich countries hog COVID-19 vaccine doses while the poorest suffer, the head of the WHO said.
World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus denounced the “me-first” attitude of wealthy nations and also blasted vaccine manufacturers for chasing regulatory approval in rich countries rather than submitting their data to the WHO to green-light vaccine use globally.
In a speech in Geneva opening a WHO executive board meeting, he said the promise of worldwide equitable access to coronavirus vaccines was now at serious risk.
Tedros said 39 million doses of coronavirus vaccines had been administered so far in at least 49 higher income countries.
Meanwhile, “just 25 doses have been given in one lowest income country. Not 25 million; not 25,000; just 25,” he said.
“I need to be blunt. The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure — and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.”
He said even as some countries pronounced reassuring words on equitable access, they were prioritising their own deals with manufacturers, driving up prices and trying to jump the queue.
He said 44 such deals were struck in 2020 and at least 12 have already been signed this year.
“The situation is compounded by the fact that most manufacturers have prioritised regulatory approval in rich countries where the profits are highest, rather than submitting full dossiers to WHO,” Tedros said.
“Not only does this me-first approach leave the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people at risk, it’s also self defeating.
“Ultimately, these actions will only prolong the pandemic, prolong our pain, the restrictions needed to contain it, and human and economic suffering.”
Professor of Infectious Diseases at the ANU Sanjaya Senanayake told the ABC’s Alison Crew that inequity with lower income countries didn’t just end with vaccines but also in terms of treatments, saying while Australia had secured 8000 ventilators, South Sudan, which is half our population, had just four.
Yet he said it was unsurprising that countries with access to the vaccine would choose to focus on vaccinating their population first, but that “I would hope this will filter down to developing nations”.
He said Canada has secured enough of a supply to vaccinate its population “almost five times over” and have pledged to give some of its excess vaccine to struggling nations.
“Many other countries, including Australia, will be in that position, so that hopefully will happen,” he said.
“It is important that those pledges have been made … and advocates for other countries like the WHO to continually remind other governments that this is an issue.
“The global community will not function if only some countries have got good vaccine coverage.”
He said Australia needed at least 60 per cent of the population to be immune to eliminate COVID, but we also “need to do that at a global level, so securing it in Australia alone, or the US or UK alone, isn’t enough”.
‘SHOT IN THE ARM’
The WHO has only approved emergency use validation for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and Tedros urged other manufacturers to come forward with their data for regulatory review.
Covax, the WHO co-led globally-pooled vaccine procurement and distribution effort, has struck agreements with five manufacturers for two billion vaccine doses.
It aims to secure vaccines for 20 per cent of the population in each participating country by the end of the year, with funding covered for the 92 lower- and lower-middle income economies involved.
“We aim to start deliveries in February,” said Tedros.
He said the recent emergence of rapidly-spreading SARS-CoV-2 virus variants makes the swift and equitable rollout of vaccines even more important.
“Vaccines are the shot in the arm we all need — literally and figuratively,” he said.
“There will be enough vaccine for everyone,” Tedros insisted.
“But it’s not right that younger, healthier adults in rich countries are vaccinated before health workers and older people in poorer countries.”
The novel coronavirus has killed more than two million people since the outbreak emerged in China in late 2019. The pathogen is believed to have originated in an undetermined bat species.
Tedros said the pandemic showed that the health of humans, animals and the planet was intertwined.
“More than 70 per cent of emerging diseases discovered in recent years are linked to animal-to-human transmission,” he said.
“One year into the greatest crisis of our time, there is no question that we still face unprecedented danger.”