TWN Info Service on Health Issues (Sept20/01)
3 September 2020
Third World Network

COVID-19: WHO suffers setback on its plan for global vaccine access facility
Published in SUNS #9183 dated 3 September 2020

Geneva, 2 Sep (D. Ravi Kanth) – The World Health Organization appears to have suffered a setback in its major global initiative for a Covid-19 vaccine procurement facility, as the United States and other major industrialized nations remain reluctant to sign up to the scheme in combating the worsening pandemic which has so far claimed more than 842,000 lives.

Despite repeated warnings in August by the WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, that “no one is safe until everyone is safe; no one country has access to research and development, manufacturing and all the supply chain for essential medicines and materials,” the major pharmaceutical producing countries are increasingly pursuing “nationalist” initiatives instead of multilateral schemes, according to media reports.

The WHO chief has warned against “vaccine nationalism”, cautioning countries that it will not help any country.

The separate actions by the US and European governments on the Covid-19 vaccine front appear to have raised harmful prospects for “vaccine nationalism” and a possible vaccine war.

“We have two choices: vaccine nationalism, where a lot of people are vaccinated in a handful [of] countries … or vaccine multilateralism, where we protect at-risk populations in all countries and keep our economies working,” warned the WHO assistant director-general Mariangela Simao, according to a report in the Financial Times on 2 September.

The US and the European governments have indicated their differing responses to joining the Covid-19 vaccine procurement facility that was announced by the WHO last month, preferring instead to adopt either purely “nationalist” positions or bilateral schemes.

Also, plans by the Geneva-based Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) to develop a Covax Exchange for enabling countries to trade in vaccines through “vaccine credits” would undermine the prospects for a “people’s vaccine” for the Covid-19 pandemic because public-private partnership (PPP) schemes for addressing a public good problem had failed time and time again, said an analyst, who preferred not to be quoted.

On the WHO’s global initiative for a Covid-19 vaccine procurement facility (Covax), the United States has said that Washington will not join the WHO’s initiative for developing, manufacturing, and equitably distributing all over the world a vaccine for Covid-19, according to a news report in The Guardian on 2 September.

The report quoted a White House spokesman as suggesting that “under President Trump’s leadership, vaccine and therapeutic research, development, and trials have advanced at unprecedented speed to deliver groundbreaking, effective medicines driven by data and safety and not held back by government red tape.”

“The United States will continue to engage our international partners to ensure we defeat this virus, but we will not be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China,” the White House spokesman stated.

After withdrawing from the global health body in May, the Trump administration appears to have gone on an all-out war against the WHO’s Covid-19 initiatives.

The US appears confident that its billions of dollars in funding to “big pharma” companies in the US and elsewhere will yield results soon.

“The US refusal to participate in Covax means that it is betting on the efficacy of its own vaccine development and encouraging other countries to do the same, which could potentially lead to hoarding of the vaccine and higher prices for doses,” according to the report in The Guardian.

Further, “the behaviour of countries when it comes to vaccines in this pandemic will have political repercussions beyond public health,” said Suerie Moon, the co-director of the Global Health Center at the Geneva-based Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies, according to The Guardian report.

In a report in the Financial Times on 2 September, titled “Vaccine nationalism delays WHO’s struggling Covax scheme”, it is suggested that “the WHO has been forced to redesign its global Covid-19 vaccine procurement facility due to slow response from rich countries.”

Apparently, the WHO has informed governments that the deadline to join the Covax scheme is being further extended from 31 August to 18 September.

Further, the final date for initial payments from participating countries in the Covax scheme has been deferred until 9 October, and “new procurement options have been introduced to offer improved flexibility.”

Meanwhile, in a separate development, the Geneva-based GAVI has been exploring a plan that seeks to enable countries to exchange vaccine doses with each other.

As reported in the Geneva Health Files newsletter, the GAVI’s “Covax Exchange” scheme allows countries to “trade their vaccine credits.”

Apparently, the scheme does not involve a financial return and GAVI is working along with WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, the report has suggested.

The GAVI’s scheme seems like a PPP for vaccines, but it is important to acknowledge the danger of national hoarding schemes and the failure of pure market-based solutions when it comes to solving a public good problem. The scheme does not intend to challenge “big pharma” companies who seemingly have an appalling record on vaccine development given the low returns on vaccines, the analyst suggested.

At the TRIPS Council meeting last month, South Africa warned that “vaccine nationalism may address short-term political demands of a country but drastically falls short of what is required to contain this pandemic.”

“World leaders from the north and south have referred to vaccine as a global public good, that should be fairly and equitably available globally, leaving no one behind,” said South Africa, emphasizing that “now is the time to put it into action.”