NEW DELHI (AP) – The company behind a COVID-19 vaccine touted as a vital tool for the developing world has sent tens of millions of doses to rich countries, but has been pushed back by a UN-backed effort to supply to poorer countries. have yet to provide any, a sign that inequality remains in the global response to the pandemic.
COVAX had planned to have 250 million doses available from Novavax by March, but the United Nations agency in charge of deliveries says the first shipments will no longer be made until April or May.
It shouldn’t have been like this. CEPI, one of the organizations leading COVAX, gave $388 million to Novavax to fast-track vaccine development, aimed at making the shot available in poorer countries as the pandemic exploded two years ago.
CEPI spokesman Björg Diestwald Nilsson said the investment guaranteed COVAX a “right of first refusal” for the first Novavax dose, but the deal only applied to factories in the Czech Republic, South Korea and Spain.
There are other factories that aren’t part of the deal – and their shots are going elsewhere.
Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, has manufactured millions of Novavax doses. According to India’s Ministry of External Affairs and Institute, over 28.9 million doses were sent to the Netherlands in January and February, while Australia received around 6 million doses. Indonesia also got about 9 million doses in December.
Thousands of other Novavax doses were also shipped from the Netherlands factory to other EU countries.
“Whatever the reason, a vaccine that used to be considered highly suitable for poor countries is now going in large part to rich countries,” said Zain Rizvi, a drug policy expert at the US advocacy group Public Citizen. “It’s sad that in the third year of the pandemic, we still haven’t got the resources, attention, and political will to solve vaccine inequality.”
The delay is the latest blow for COVAX, which has been hit repeatedly by supply problems and has missed several targets for dosage sharing.
Last year, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the gap in vaccine supplies between rich and poor countries a “catastrophic moral failure”.
Vaccine availability in poor areas has improved recently, but logistics problems remain.
According to Oxford University data, only 14% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. According to government data, more than 680 million doses of vaccines provided by COVAX are unused or expired.
Even with the supply of the vaccine improving, some officials were eagerly waiting for the Novavax vaccine especially because it is easier to transport and store than some other coronavirus shots. He also hoped it might be more tempting for those skeptical about the AstraZeneca vaccine, which had suffered through a failed rollout in Europe.
Countries including Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic and Kiribati were among those to offer Novavax doses from COVAX to March.
Before the pandemic, Novavax was a small US company that had never brought a vaccine to market. Its shots have proven to be highly effective, but it relies heavily on other companies to make it.
The company, which is struggling to ramp up production, has delayed deliveries to other countries, including some countries in the European Union. COVAX expects to receive more than 1 billion Novavax doses.
In a statement, the Gaithersburg, Maryland, company acknowledged that it has not yet shared any shots with vaccine alliance Gavi, which spearheads the COVAX effort, but said it is ready to do so.
“We continue to work with Gavi to reach our shared goal of ensuring global access to our protein-based vaccines where it is needed most,” Novavax said.
Gavi suggested that part of the delay is that the Novavax vaccine was not authorized by the WHO until December. Gavi said it plans to allocate to Novavax in the future and is “in close contact with the manufacturer and expects the supply to be available for delivery when countries need it.”
Health officials also worry that the urgency to vaccinate people everywhere against COVID-19 has disappeared – especially as many countries have withdrawn precautions and the world’s attention has been diverted.
“Rich countries have moved on from COVID and everyone is ready for war in Ukraine, but COVID-19 remains a serious crisis for most of the world,” said Ritu Sharma, vice president of Charity Care.
She said there is still a dire shortage of vaccines at COVAX and based on the current pace of vaccination, the world was still “years and years” away from immunizing enough people to prevent future COVID-19 waves.
Other experts said it was up to public health agencies to ensure that poorer countries would benefit from their investments in vaccines and to be more transparent about what went wrong.
“Whatever the explanation is, it’s unsatisfactory,” said Brooke Baker, a medicine specialist at Northeastern University. “The bottom line is that there are still a lot of illiterate people in poor countries and once again, they are at the back of the line.”
Cheng reported from London. Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic
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