As world leaders race to sign contracts with pharmaceutical companies to pre-order potential novel coronavirus vaccines, experts warn that this may leave lower-income countries without enough doses to inoculate their entire populations.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is COVAX?
COVAX is a global initiative led by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and international vaccine alliance organization Gavi, that aims to bring governments and vaccine manufacturers together to ensure all countries have access to the COVID-19 vaccine once they become available.
It’s one of three pillars of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which was launched in April by the WHO, France and the European Commission.
How does it work?
Once vaccines become available, higher-income countries that have expressed interest in the initiative’s procurement mechanism, deemed the COVAX Facility, will partner with up with lower-income countries to help evenly distribute doses, the WHO said in an earlier release.
COVAX is offering participants COVID-19 doses for at least 20 per cent of each country’s population that will be delivered as soon as they’re available, as well as a “diverse and actively managed portfolio of vaccines” and a pledge to help “rebuild economies.”
“This means the COVAX Facility, by pooling purchasing power from all countries that participate, will have rapid access to doses of safe and effective vaccines as soon as they receive regulatory approval,” Gavi said in an online release.
So far, 184 countries have expressed a willingness to participate, broken down into 92 “fully self-financing” countries and 92 “funded participants” countries, also known as AMC-eligible countries.
An updated list of participants sent to Global News by the WHO included Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Mauritius, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Qatar, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.
The United States had initially declined to participate, with U.S. President Donald Trump claiming COVAX was “influenced by the corrupt WHO and China.”
However, Seth Berkley, Gavi’s chief executive, said Nov. 13 that the vaccine alliance organization expected to hold talks with president-Elect Joe Biden, adding the Democratic task force were “believers in science.”
Several pharmaceutical companies on track to produce the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine have also agreed to collaborate with the initiative.
Gavi said they had announced deals for at least 700 million vaccine doses in a statement to Global News, including a collaboration with the Serum Institute of India and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for 200 million doses of the AstraZeneca and Novavax vaccine candidates.
AstraZeneca agreed to supply its vaccine to 61 AMC-eligible countries on Sept. 29, in addition to 300 million doses to the COVAX Facility that was promised in June and those obtained through the Gates Foundation. Novavax also agreed to participate in August, securing $2 billion in funding for the global vaccine initiative.
Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline signed a letter of intent with Gavi on Oct. 28 to supply the COVAX Facility with 200 million doses of its vaccine candidate, should it succeed in meeting public health requirements.
CEPI is also currently supporting seven other vaccine candidates, including those from Inovio, Moderna, CureVac, the Institut Pasteur/Merck/Themis vaccine, the University of Hong Kong, Clover Biopharmaceuticals, and the University of Queensland.
Pfizer and BioNtech have yet to sign up to be a part of COVAX, but said they had “provided an expression of interest for possible supply to the COVAX Facility” in an emailed statement to Global News.
Side deals with pharmaceutical companies
Higher-income countries are not limited to resorting to COVAX just because they’ve signed on.
Several, like Canada and the European Union, have been dealing directly with pharmaceutical companies to secure vaccine doses.
To date, Canada has procured nearly 414 million vaccine doses — more than 10 doses per-person for its population of 37.9 million while the European Union, which is home to almost 448 million people, is also on track to obtain 1.1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses.
In a statement to Global News, the office of the Prime Minister said that Canada had announced $440 million into COVAX — the second largest contribution any country has made so far.
“Investing into global health is an investment into the health of Canadians,” the statement read.
However, “Canada’s priority is to guarantee access to a vaccine against COVID-19 for Canadians at home.”
Maxwell J. Smith, an assistant professor at Western University, told Global News buying out the world’s supply before they hit the market could undermine the initiative, making it more difficult for third-world countries to obtain the number of doses they need.
“The issue is that rich countries like Canada have already agreed to buy the lion’s share of doses of promising vaccine candidates like Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine, which could make it more difficult for lower-resourced countries to secure enough for their populations,” he said.
“Ultimately, because we are in a pandemic, working together to ensure populations all over the world get access to the vaccine is very important not only for people in poorer countries but for Canadians as well.”
— With files from The Associated Press and Reuters