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WHO clears first vaccine for world's poorest

February 15, 2021

The AstraZeneca vaccine, developed by Oxford University, has become the first to be given the green light by the WHO for the joint vaccine procurement program.

A vial of the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine
The AstraZeneca virus is the first to be given emergency approval by the WHO for global distribution via COVAXImage: Valentina Petrova/AP Photo/picture alliance

The World Health Organization (WHO) set the ball in motion for the global deployment of coronavirus vaccines to poorer countries on Monday after it issued emergency approval for the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Low- and middle-income countries can expect to receive their first deliveries of the vaccine at the end of February as part of the COVAX shared-procurement program.

The WHO hopes to deliver 336 million doses in the first half of the year and up to 2 billion by the end of December.

The race for COVID vaccines: Rich against poor?

It had been hoped that the COVAX program would start in line with vaccination launches in richer countries. However, two months in and not a single dose had been administered among the world's poorest 2.5 billion people in about 130 countries.

When will the COVAX rollout begin?

COVAX had signed deals with various manufacturers, but only the AstraZeneca and BioNTech-Pfizer vaccines were expected to be included in the first wave. Both require two doses, but the German-made BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine requires ultracold storage technology making it unsuitable for most low-income countries.

The Serum Institute of India agreed to produce 1.1 billion doses for delivery. India has already begun to donate doses to some of its neighbors.

UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, is preparing to transport up to 850 metric tons of doses every month once it's available. COVAX has so far raised $6 billion (€4.95 billion) in pledges but will require at least another $2 billion this year.

Some higher-income countries have also signed up to the program, even if they had signed individual deals with vaccine manufacturers directly — South Korea is set to receive 2.6 million doses.

What is COVAX?

Launched in June 2020 by the WHO, the Gavi vaccine alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), COVAX is a cooperative program aimed at ensuring global access to coronavirus vaccines, especially to poorer countries.

A reported 198 countries and territories are participating in the program. Some pay for their doses. The 92 lowest-income nations receive the vaccines as donations. Many of the countries are reliant on the WHO to assess and approve vaccines.

Forming a unified front, COVAX was able to invest in a variety of vaccines to ensure that manufacturers invest sufficiently in production to fulfill orders. The design followed in the footsteps of previously successful vaccination drives which provided equitable access to pneumococcal and Ebola vaccines.

ab/msh (AFP, AP)