Covax shows how far the world has come since the H1N1 pandemic, says vaccine expert

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Jordan Kelly-Linden
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A shipment of COVID-19 vaccines distributed by the COVAX Facility arrives in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Friday Feb. 25 - Diomande Ble Blonde / AP
A shipment of COVID-19 vaccines distributed by the COVAX Facility arrives in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Friday Feb. 25 - Diomande Ble Blonde / AP

Experts have hailed the great progress the world has made on achieving equal access to vaccines as the first Covid jabs were administered in Africa via the Covax-vaccine sharing scheme.

On Monday the first coronavirus jabs were administered via Covax in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, marking a huge step forward for low and middle income countries in their fight Covid-19.

Dr Richard Hatchett, chief executive of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi), an organisation that funds vaccine development, drew comparisons between the global response to the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009 and the response to the Covid pandemic.

He said that thanks to Covax, the world has already achieved more for vaccine equity in the last week and a half than it did in the first 12 weeks of the H1N1 pandemic.

“In the first 10 days we will have exceeded the achievements of the first three months of the 2010 programme,” said Dr Hatchett, who helped lead the US response to that outbreak. He added that this is “only the beginning”.

Speaking at a virtual press briefing on the Covax scheme, he said that during the H1N1 outbreak poorer countries received vaccines four months after richer countries – and even then allocations were slim.

In the first six weeks, a mere 100,000 doses were shared, while fewer than 10m doses were distributed in 17 countries in the entire first three months of the programme, he said.

While the current vaccine roll out is less than perfect, the estimated quantities the Covax facility - co-led by Cepi, the World Health Organization and Gavi - is currently working towards are far greater this time around.

"To date, more than 1.1 million doses have been delivered, with more than 20 more countries expected to receive hundreds of thousands of doses this week," said Unicef chief Henrietta Fore, who also spoke at the briefing.

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The Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Nigeria are among some of the countries to have received their first shipment of vaccines in the last 24 hours.

"Syringes and routine vaccinations to ensure that children are also protected [from other diseases]” have also been sent to these nations, she added.

Close to 277 million doses of various coronavirus vaccines are due to be delivered to 142 low and middle income countries through the scheme by the end of May.

Some have questioned why certain countries have received doses faster than others, however, organisers of the scheme were quick to stress that the pace of deliveries was not based on the epidemiological situation.

Factors, including, country readiness, national regulations and current national vaccination plans have instead been taken into account, they said.

And while some countries have yet to receive doses, Dr Bruce Aylward, a senior advisor at the WHO, added that it was “completely possible” that everyone signed up to the scheme “could begin vaccinating in March”.

The challenge in the months ahead is whether manufacturers will be able to keep up with demand, he said.

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Out of all the low and middle income countries queued up for deliveries, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nigeria stand to benefit the most from the Covax facility, with more than 10 million doses each expected to arrive in these countries by the end of May.

Meanwhile Brazil, which has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, is expecting about 9.1 million doses, with 5.5 million also promised to Mexico in the first round of allocations.

Most countries will receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in the next couple of months, but 1.2 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine have also been earmarked for delivery in the first quarter of 2021.

Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, put the overall delay in Pfizer deliveries down to added paperwork on indemnification and liability issues.

“So that's one of the reasons that there has been a delay in rolling out that vaccine as compared to the aspirations we had,” he said.

“But it's underway, and we'll see some more announcements coming in the next few days.”

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