EMMA FARGE and STEPHANIE NEBEHAY
THE World Health Organization is in advanced negotiations with Pfizer to include the firm’s COVID-19 shot in the body’s vaccine-sharing scheme, which would speed vaccine deliveries to poorer countries, according to a senior WHO official.
The COVAX scheme — led by the WHO and GAVI vaccine alliance — is due to start rolling out vaccines to poor and middle-income countries in February, with 2 of 3 billion doses expected to be delivered this year.
“We are in … detailed discussions with Pfizer. We believe very soon we will have access to that product,” WHO senior adviser Bruce Aylward told the WHO’s executive board meeting, adding that it would then look to add others.
COVAX aims to deliver 135 million doses of all shots it has deals for to 92 lower and middle income countries in the programme by the end of March, he said.
So far, over half of the 50 million inoculations given globally in 50 countries have been done in the United States and China, according to Aylward. None have yet been given in Africa, he said.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday blamed vaccine nationalism for the inequity, saying the world was on the brink of “catastrophic moral failure”.
The WHO already has deals with several suppliers, including AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India.
Austria’s Clemens Martin Auer, one of the 34 WHO board members, said at Monday’s meeting COVAX had been slow in securing deals and called its failure to procure mRNA vaccines, such as that made by Pfizer and BioNTech, “a major mistake”.
Aylward justified the WHO stance saying they were expensive and that its cold-chain requirements were difficult for many countries to manage.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine must be stored at ultra-low temperatures of about -70 degrees Celsius before being shipped to distribution centres in cool boxes filled with dry ice.
So far, 44 countries out of the 50 that have already begun vaccinations have used the shot, WHO data shows.
The WHO also hopes to procure Pfizer shots via donations, rather than some countries being “double-served”, Aylward said.
“We would be very keen to try and translate a lot of the commitments and interest in dose-sharing into actual deals, particularly with countries that have large bilateral deals on key products,” he said, without naming countries.