Poor Countries Face Long Wait for Vaccines

16 December 2020

Americans, Britons and Canadians are finally receiving a vaccine for the new coronavirus.

It will take several months to vaccinate everyone, but the end of the COVID-19 health crisis in these countries seems near.

But for poorer countries, the end seems far away.

The World Health Organization (WHO) created the COVAX program to provide vaccine doses to poor countries. It has, however, only secured a small percentage of the two billion doses it hopes to buy over the next year. The program has not confirmed any deals for vaccines. It also is short of money.

COVAX is similar to the alliances GAVI and CEPI which seek to provide vaccines and other aid to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

More than 1.6 million deaths are blamed on the coronavirus. Some experts now say it is unlikely that vaccine doses will be shared between rich and poor nations.

Vaccine supplies are limited and the governments of developed countries are under a lot of pressure to vaccinate their own populations. They are buying up available doses, pointing out that their development is the result of taxes paid by their citizens.

Some poorer countries that signed up with COVAX, and expected it to represent their needs, are worried.

"It's simple math," said Arnaud Bernaert. He is head of worldwide health at the World Economic Forum.

The pharmaceutical industry is expected to create about 12 billion doses next year. Of that amount, 9 billion doses have already been bought by rich countries.

"COVAX has not secured enough doses... they will probably only get these doses fairly late," Bernaert said.

COVAX's only confirmed agreement is for up to 200 million doses. It includes an option to order several hundred million more, GAVI spokesman James Fulker said. It also has agreements for another 500 million vaccines, but those are not legally confirmed.

Men ride on a motorbike past a supply truck of India's Serum Institute, the world's largest maker of vaccines, which is working on a vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Pune, India, May 18, 2020
Men ride on a motorbike past a supply truck of India's Serum Institute, the world's largest maker of vaccines, which is working on a vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Pune, India, May 18, 2020

The 200 million doses will come from the Serum Institute of India (SII). SII is a company that will likely make most of the vaccine headed for the developing world. SII chief Adar Poonawalla said it has a confirmed order for 100 million doses of two vaccines. Oxford University and AstraZeneca developed one and another is from Novovax.

He said COVAX's lack of confirmed orders will mean a much longer wait for people in developing countries. He also said his company's most important goal is making vaccine doses for India, which may need at least 300 million.

Asked by The Associated Press why COVAX only made a confirmed agreement with the Serum Institute for 200 million vaccines, WHO's Dr. Bruce Aylward said they would go back to the company "to make sure they have the assurances they need."

COVAX does not have the two vaccines that appear to be the most effective and are approved or near approval: the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna shots. Instead, COVAX has orders for the AstraZeneca and the Novovax vaccines. Neither has been approved.

Top officials at the WHO have also quietly agreed that the COVAX program has problems.

"The whole call for global solidarity has mostly been lost," said Dr. Katherine O'Brien, WHO's vaccines chief. Her comments were recorded during a private discussion and given to the Associated Press.

Asked about her statement, O'Brien said in an email that "every country should have access to COVID-19 vaccines, as early as feasible."

Earlier this month, O'Brien said at a news conference that COVAX still needs an additional $5 billion to buy the vaccines it needs.

John Nkengasong is director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He criticized Western countries for buying up the world's vaccine supply "in excess of their needs..."

Because there are several vaccines and it is possible that not all of them will work, some governments made several agreements. Canada, for example, bought nearly 200 million vaccines. Its population is about 38 million.

Because of fears that COVAX will fail, some countries, like Malaysia, Peru and Bangladesh, have recently made agreements with drugmakers.

Kate Elder is a vaccines policy adviser at Doctors Without Borders. She said it appears "the ship has sailed on equitable vaccine distribution."

I'm Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported on this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

dose – n. the amount of a medicine or vaccine that is needed to be effective against disease

pharmaceutical – adj. related to the production and sale of drugs and medicines

option – n. one of two or more choices or possibilities

assurance – n. a strong statement that something will happen

global – adj. involving the whole world, worldwide

feasible – adj. possible, able to be done

equitable –adj. just, dealing fairly and equally with everybody

distribution – n. the act of delivering something to people

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.