UN agencies make urgent appeal for COVAX vaccine doses

COVAX shipment
COVAX vaccine shipment

UNICEF Ethiopia / Flickr cc

Ahead of the G7 summit next month in the United Kingdom, UNICEF today put out an urgent call for leaders to pool their excess COVID-19 vaccine capacity to make up for a 125-million-dose gap in the COVAX program.

The plea, which comes as the B1617 and other variants are sparking fresh surges in several countries, was followed by an announcement from US President Joe Biden that the United States will donate 20 million doses of approved vaccine abroad.

Vaccine plea

In a statement, UNICEF's Executive Director Henrietta Fore, MPA, said the COVAX program, designed to ensure equitable access to vaccines, will soon deliver its 65 millionth dose, but should have delivered at least 170 million. She predicted that as a deadly surge continues in India and its neighbors, the shortfall will be 190 million doses by the time G7 leaders meet in early June.

She said UNICEF has repeatedly warned about countries letting down their guard and leaving low- and middle-income countries without equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments.

"While the situation in India is tragic, it is not unique," Fore said. "Cases are exploding, and health systems are struggling in countries near—like Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Maldives—and far, like Argentina and Brazil. The cost for children and families will be incalculable."

Soaring domestic vaccine demand in India has diverted 140 million doses meant for COVAX, with 50 million more doses that will probably be missed in June.

Fore said G7 leaders meeting next month have a potential stop-gap measure to help make up the lost ground. She said a new analysis suggests that G7 nations and a group of European countries could donate about 153 million doses if they shared 20% of their available supply this summer. "Critically, they could do so while still meeting their commitments to vaccinate their own populations," Fore said.

Call for vaccine makers to step up

At a World Health Organization (WHO) briefing today, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, amplified UNICEF's urgent call for vaccine donations, but called on vaccine makers to help make up the gap.

He said he appreciated their supply commitments, but said some come with delays, such as most Pfizer doses not slated for delivery till the second half of 2021 and most Moderna doses for 2022. He also called on vaccine makers to sign deals with companies that are willing to produce COVID vaccine.

"There is a huge disconnect growing, where in some countries with the highest vaccination rates, there appears to be a mindset that the pandemic is over, while others are experiencing huge waves of infection," Tedros said, adding that the pandemic is a long way from being over and won't be over anywhere until it's over everywhere.

At a White House briefing today, Biden said the United States will send 20 million doses of approved vaccine abroad, which includes doses of Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to the New York Times. The doses are in addition to an earlier announced donation of 60 million doses of AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, which is still awaiting Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.

Global case drop, but concerning rises in Asia

At today's WHO briefing, Tedros said global cases and deaths declined last week for the second week in a row, but the situation is still concerning in a number of countries, even those that did very well at containing earlier rises.

"New variants of concern, fragile health systems, reduced implementation of public health measures, and supply shortages of oxygen, dexamethasone, and vaccines are all compounding the current situation," he said, adding that the WHO's response to the new surges requires immediate flexible funding to sustain technical and operational support in several countries, including Nepal.

In India, the rate of cases has declined some, but the daily death toll remains above 4,000, according to Reuters. Health officials say many people in Indian villages are dying from apparent COVID without ever being tested.

In another challenge to the country's COVID response, Cyclone Tauktae is striking India's southern and western states, which is placing more demands on the already stretched health system and has led to suspensions in vaccination efforts in Mumbai and Gujarat state, according to CNN.

Elsewehere in Asia, Taiwan's surge in cases continues, with 333 new cases reported today, following 206 reported yesterday, the South China Morning Post reported. Rising cases prompted officials in Taipei to shutter schools for 2 weeks and to ban the arrival of international travelers until Jun 18.

Thailand today reported another record high, mostly to due prison clusters, according to Reuters, and Indonesia braced for a rise in cases as people return from Eid holiday travel with variants circulating, with officials setting up roadblocks to test travelers.

More global headlines

  • In vaccine developments, Sanofi and GSK announced that their adjuvanted recombinant COVID-19 vaccine candidate showed a strong immune response with one dose in adults in a phase 2 trial, with the launch of a phase 3 trial expected in the coming weeks. They said they expect the vaccine to be approved in the fourth quarter of 2021.

  • The United Kingdom took a reopening step today, following a 4-month lockdown, allowing people to return to pubs, indoor restaurants, and movie theaters, according to Reuters. However, concerns about the B1617.2 variant, quickly spreading in some parts of the country, is raising concerns, and government officials will decide on Jun 14 about whether to move to the final phase of the eased lockdown, slated for Jun 21.

  • Trinidad and Tobago on May 15 declared a state of emergency to contain its steady rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths, according to Reuters.

  • The global today climbed to at least 163,088,400 cases, and at least 3,378,100 people have died from their infections, according to the New York Times

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