Credit: Vaccines Stock Photos via flickr CC license

Vaccine Multilateralism Gets a Shot in the Arm

It is the end of 2020 and two recent developments augur well for the prospects for international cooperation to confront the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.

On December 18 the multilateral platform for international cooperation around the development and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, known as COVAX, announced that it had secured nearly 2 billion doses of the vaccine for participating countries. Furthermore, it is on track to hit its target of providing 1 billion doses of the vaccine to populations of poorer countries by the end of 2021.

“190 participating and eligible economies will be able to access doses to protect vulnerable groups in the first half of 2021,” the announcement said. “At least 1.3 billion donor-funded doses will be made available to 92 economies eligible for the Gavi COVAX AMC, targeting up to 20% population coverage by the end of the year.”

This announcement by COVAX serves as an important corrective to a kind of vaccine nationalism that was threatening to pit wealthier countries against each other (and exclude poorer countries all together) in a nationalist race to secure vaccines for their populations alone.

From the Washington Post

By mid-November, wealthy nations had reserved 51 percent of various vaccine doses even though they are home to only 14 percent of the world’s population, according to a new study published by two Johns Hopkins researchers in the BMJ, a journal published by the British Medical Association.

An earlier study by researchers at Duke University estimated that people in low-income countries could be waiting for a coronavirus vaccine until 2024.

Covax on Friday announced new deals with drug companies, including an advance purchase agreement with AstraZeneca for 170 million doses and a memorandum of understanding for 500 million doses from Johnson & Johnson.

These deals will build on existing agreements with India’s Serum Institute for 200 million doses, plus options for up to 900 million doses more of either the AstraZeneca or Novavax candidates, as well as a statement of intent for 200 million doses from Sanofi/GSK, according to the WHO.

The United States is not a member of COVAX, but Congress just allocated billions to the effort.

The Trump administration has declined to enter the United States into the COVAX facility, potentially denying the American people access to millions of doses of a vaccine procured through the facility.  When the White House made that announcement it justified this decision by invoking a political narrative that sought to shift blame from its own mishandling of COVID-19 to the World Health Organization. The WHO’s participation in COVAX, said the White House, means that the United States would not participate.

Still, the United States Congress passed an end-of-year $900 billion spending and COVID-19 relief bill that included among its provisions $4 billion for GAVI–the Global Vaccine Alliance. GAVI is a public-private partnership with a long history of delivering vaccines to countries that do not have the capacity to purchase and distribute vaccines on their own. It is also the lead partner and convener of COVAX. This allocation by Congress demonstrates that America’s commitment to vaccine multilateralism will endure beyond the Trump administration’s few weeks left in office.

This is good news.

The COVID pandemic will only end through a massive global cooperative effort to deliver the vaccine to all corners of the earth.  The announcement from the World Health Organization and the COVAX partners suggested that most governments around the world have embraced this kind of self-interested approach global solidarity. Meanwhile, the incoming Biden administration has signaled that it would support COVAX. This allocation of of $4 billion by Congress is certainly a step in the right direction.

 Want to learn more? Listen to this Global Dispatches podcast interview with GAVI managing director Thabani Maphosa who explains how COVAX plans to make the vaccine widely available throughout the world.

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