WHO chief warns against ‘catastrophic moral failure’ in COVID-19 vaccine access

The United Nations

A “me-first approach” to COVID-19 vaccines on the part of some countries and manufacturers is putting equitable access to these lifesaving treatments at risk, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Monday.

Addressing the agency’s Executive Board, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed fear that “even as vaccines bring hope to some, they become another brick in the wall of inequality between the world’s haves and have-nots.”

Describing the rapid development of vaccines as a literal and figurative “shot in the arm” during the pandemic, Tedros reported that while 39 million doses have been administered in nearly 50 richer countries, only 25 have been given in one lowest income nation.

A self-defeating approach

“I need to be blunt: the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries”, he said, speaking from WHO headquarters in Geneva.

Ensuring all countries will have access to any COVID-19 vaccines is the promise of a global mechanism established last April, known as the COVAX Facility. It has secured two billion doses so far, with a billion more in the pipeline, and deliveries should begin next month.

“Even as they speak the language of equitable access, some countries and companies continue to prioritize bilateral deals, going around COVAX, driving up prices and attempting to jump to the front of the queue. This is wrong”, Tedros stated.

Additionally, most manufacturers also have prioritized regulatory approval in rich countries, where profits are higher, rather than submitting their dossiers to WHO for prequalification.

“This could delay COVAX deliveries and create exactly the scenario COVAX was designed to avoid, with hoarding, a chaotic market, an uncoordinated response, and continued social and economic disruption”, he said.

“Not only does this me-first approach leave the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people at risk, it’s also self-defeating.”

Change the rules of the game

Underlining that vaccine equity also has economic benefits, Tedros urged countries to “work together in solidarity” to ensure inoculation of all health workers and older people at most risk worldwide is underway, within the first 100 days of the year.

He pressed for action in three areas to “change the rules of the game”, starting with an appeal for transparency in any bilateral contracts between countries and COVAX, including on volumes, pricing and delivery dates.

“We call on these countries to give much greater priority to COVAX’s place in the queue, and to share their own doses with COVAX, especially once they have vaccinated their own health workers and older populations, so that other countries can do the same”, he said.

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