Covid-19 coronavirus: Rich nations, vaccine firms should stop bilateral deals, WHO says


World Health Organisation Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Photo / AP

Bilateral deals between the makers of Covid-19 vaccines and wealthier countries is hurting the UN-backed effort to widen access to the jabs, the World Health Organisation (WHO) chief said on Friday (Saturday NZT).

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said 42 countries – mostly high and middle income – are now rolling out such vaccines. He called on countries that have more jabs than they need to make some available to the Covax Facility — the UN-backed project to get vaccines deployed widely.

“Now, we are also seeing both high- and middle-income countries that are part of Covax making additional bilateral deals,” he told reporters in Geneva. “This potentially bumps up the price for everyone and means high-risk people in the poorest and most marginalised countries don’t get the vaccine.”

“I urge countries and manufacturers to stop making bilateral deals at the expense of Covax,” said Tedros, the WHO director-general.

Tedros also urged manufacturers to make the data about their vaccines available, which was needed for the UN health agency to be able to provide “emergency use listings” that could expedite their deployment.

The lack of such data “blocks the whole system of procurement and delivery,” he said.

WHO officials, who generally shun finger-pointing at specific countries and companies that they need to work with, did not specify which ones need to do more to help broaden access to vaccines.

Syringes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine sit in a tray in a vaccination room in California. Photo / AP
Syringes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine sit in a tray in a vaccination room in California. Photo / AP

But Canada, for example, is known to have far greater access to vaccines that its population needs. And partners Pfizer and BioNTech, which make the first vaccine that received emergency use approval from the WHO and countries like the US and Britain, have not reached a deal to take part in the Covax Facility.

Dr Bruce Aylward, a special adviser to the WHO chief, said 50 per cent of high-income countries were deploying vaccines — and “zero per cent” of poor countries are.

“That is not equitable access,” he said.

Pfizer spokeswoman Sharon Castillo said her company and BioNTech “are firmly committed to equitable and affordable access” to their vaccine for people around the world.

“As it relates to Covax, we support its goal to supply two billion Covid-19 vaccine doses in 2021 to countries around the world, with half of those going to (low- and middle-income countries)” she said. “We are in active negotiations with Covax to help it reach this goal and hope to finalise an agreement very soon.”

The WHO appeals come as the world has faced high case counts in recent weeks. There are about 4 million new confirmed infections per week, WHO emergencies chief Dr Michael Ryan said.

Tedros said some of the highest numbers of deaths recorded at any point in the pandemic have been in recent days, and faulted a lack of compliance with recommendations of health authorities.

The WHO also said a team of experts who had originally expected to arrive in China this week to look into the origins of the pandemic had not yet arrived, saying that now, “we expect to fix the travel dates next week”.

On Tuesday, Tedros said he was “very disappointed” Chinese officials had not finalised the needed permissions for the team’s arrival in China.

The Covax Facility has secured access so far to nearly 2 billion doses of vaccines produced by Swedish-British pharmaceutical maker AstraZeneca and its partner Oxford; the Serum Institute of India; US giant Johnson & Johnson; and the partnership of France’s Sanofi and GSK of Britain.