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First COVAX vaccine shipment arrives in Ghana as developing world hopes to catch up

A shipment of Covid-19 vaccines from the COVAX global vaccination program arrives at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana, Feb. 24, 2021.

Nipah Dennis | AFP | Getty Images

The first shipment of Covid-19 vaccines delivered through the World Health Organization’s COVAX program arrived in Ghana on Wednesday, a hopeful turning point for developing countries that risk being left behind in the global race for vaccinations against a virus that has killed nearly 2.5 million people worldwide.  

The flight brought 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, one considered far easier to distribute to developing nations since it doesn’t require extremely cold storage temperatures like the PfizerGenTech and Moderna vaccines.  

The vaccines delivered Wednesday will be prioritized for front-line medical workers, people over 60, and those with preexisting health conditions, according to Ghana’s Information Ministry.  

“Today marks the historic moment for which we have been planning and working so hard,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a joint statement by her agency and the WHO Ghana. 

“With the first shipment of doses, we can make good on the promise of the COVAX Facility to ensure people from less wealthy countries are not left behind in the race for life-saving vaccines.”

Airport workers transport on dollies a shipment of Covid-19 vaccines from the Covax global Covid-19 vaccination programme, at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra on February 24, 2021.

Nipah Dennis | AFP | Getty Images

COVAX is a global plan co-led by the WHO, an international vaccine alliance called Gavi, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.  

As wealthier nations push ahead with costly vaccine development and procurement, poorer countries are suffering from the consequences of inequality. Mark Suzman, chief executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said in December that it may already be too late for equitable distribution of the vaccines because of the massive deals already brokered by rich countries.

Wealthy nations, which constitute just 14% of the world’s population, had secured 53% of the world’s supply of the best-performing coronavirus vaccines by December, according to a group of human rights campaigners called the People’s Vaccine Alliance. 

COVAX was established to pursue equitable vaccine access globally, aiming to vaccinate 20% of people in the world’s 92 poorest countries by the end of 2021 through funding donations. Several other middle-income countries are set to acquire vaccines through COVAX on a self-funded basis. The plan aims to deliver 2 billion doses this year of vaccines that have been approved as safe and effective by the WHO.  

The shots delivered to Ghana were produced by India’s Serum Institute, which has been given access to the intellectual property enabling it to produce vaccines using the Oxford-AstraZeneca formula. The African Union has secured some 670 million doses of the Serum Institute’s vaccine for its member countries, and aims have 60% of Africa’s 1.3 billion-person population inoculated in the next two to three years.

‘By far the fastest ever’ 

“This is amazingly significant. We want the gap between when rich people and poor people get vaccinated to be reduced to zero,” Hassan Damluji, deputy director for global policy and advocacy at the ‎Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told CNBC in an interview Wednesday. 

“We know that it normally takes decades between a vaccine being developed and used for the first time in rich countries and then getting to the poorest people in the world. So for Ghana to receive their first shipment, only three months from the very first vaccine rollouts in the world, is beyond exceptional,” he said. “It’s by far the fastest ever.”

A health worker applies a Sinovac’s CoronaVac coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine on an elderly citzen in Sao Goncalo near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil February 18, 2021.

Ricardo Moraes | Reuters

The Gates Foundation has spent $1.75 billion on efforts to counter the coronavirus and has focused its efforts on vaccine development within COVAX. 

Damluji noted that the program’s vaccine procurement for poor countries has been entirely funded by donors at a time when every developed world economy is in recession. “So it’s pretty remarkable,” he said.

Vaccine inequality will plunge countries into deeper poverty

The exclusion of poor countries from vaccination programs being rolled out in wealthier nations will have devastating and prolonged consequences, economists and public health experts warn, dramatically widening inequalities, hampering social and economic development, and leaving scores of countries in significantly more debt.

These inequalities mean that the pandemic’s long-term economic damage will be twice as severe in emerging markets as in developed ones, according to Oxford Economics. And a study by RAND Corporation predicts that the global economy will lose $153 billion a year in output if emerging countries don’t gain access to vaccines.

Countries on the COVAX donation plan are set to get doses proportionate to their populations: Afghanistan will get 3 million doses, for instance, while Namibia receives just under 130,000.

The Palestinian territories are expecting to receive vaccines through COVAX in March; Iran and Iraq are also part of COVAX, as are many lower-income Middle Eastern countries. Wealthier Gulf states have procured their own vaccine shipments directly from manufacturers, while some are also contributing to the COVAX donation pool despite suffering their own recessions: Saudi Arabia has contributed $300 million and Qatar has donated $10 million.  

The U.S. had not contributed to the COVAX facility under the Trump administration, but the Biden administration has pledged the largest donation yet — $4 billion.  

Damluji noted the challenges of COVAX’s goals, executing expansive inoculation campaigns in countries with faulty infrastructure, limited logistics and transport options, remote populations and in some cases, violence and war.

“This stuff is a moving target. Rightly, the world’s attention is on this and wants to make sure that it goes well,” he said. “But a couple of months ago, we didn’t even know which vaccines would work. And now people need them on their doorstep.”

“There will be some complications that also come up,” he added. “It’s the largest health procurement effort ever.”