WHO director-general calls on member states to join COVAX facility

The COVAX facility will ensure equitable distribution of a successful Covid-19 vaccine. Source: Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

While some 170 countries have so far expressed interest in the initiative to pool global demand for a coronavirus vaccine, negotiations to join the COVAX facility will continue until the end of August.

WHO urges member states to sign up for COVAX facility. The World Health Organization encouraged its 194 member states to join the COVAX facility on Tuesday, calling it the ‘only’ solution to procure and deploy a coronavirus vaccine equitably and quickly around the globe.

So far, about 92 low or middle-income countries and 80 high-income countries have expressed interest in the initiative, which aims to pool global demand for a successful coronavirus vaccine, and support its deployment in lower-income countries. Negotiations to join the facility will be finalized at the end of August.

Countries who are part of the facility will get their hands on an effective vaccine at the best possible price, emphasized Bruce Aylward, WHO’s senior advisor to the director-general, at a Tuesday press conference. Joining the facility also allows countries to avoid taking on all the risk if they happen to invest in an ineffective vaccine candidate.

Joining COVAX “is in the interest of countries to pool their risk, reduce the risk [of investments], and then be able to get the best possible prices and guarantee the receipt of this,” said Aylward.

Bruce Aylward, WHO's senior advisor to the director-general. Source: WHO.

Why it’s important to pool risk in vaccine development. Although over 200 vaccines are in development, it’s simply not possible to know which ones will be successful just yet, added Mariangela Simao, WHO’s assistant director general for access to medicines, vaccines and pharmaceuticals. Usually, only a handful of these vaccine candidates will prove to be effective, according to Aylward.

But many countries have already poured billions of dollars into developing their chosen candidates, taking on the risk that the vaccines may not reach the market if proven to be ineffective. In an unprecedented move, several countries and regions - including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union - have also already inked bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies to begin mass production of promising coronavirus vaccine candidates while they are still in final phase trials.

But in the case that these vaccine candidates fail, the COVAX facility will pool the risks of development and procurement of COVID-19 vaccines between countries, said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. So far, the Facility is considering 10-15 vaccine candidates in its portfolio.

Participating in COVAX will be the fastest way to fend off the pandemic.

The COVAX facility aims to secure 2 billion doses of an effective COVID-19 vaccine, including 950 million reserved for low and lower-middle-income countries, and 100 million reserved for emergency deployment in humanitarian situations.

A portion of the 2 billion doses will be allocated equally to all participating countries, thus allowing Member States to vaccinate up to 20% of their population. This would cover “most of the high-risk groups”, including adults over 65 and those with comorbidities, said Dr Tedros.

“We have learned the hard way that the fastest way to end this pandemic and to reopen economies is to start by protecting the highest risk populations everywhere, rather than the entire populations of just some countries”, said Dr. Tedros.

“It's critical that countries don't repeat the same mistakes. We need to prevent vaccine nationalism."

Source: WHO.

According to the WHO, the COVAX facility is the best shot we have to effectively roll-out a Covid-19 vaccine to the world.

Who’s backing the COVAX Facility? COVAX is co-led by WHO, the Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation (CEPI) and Geneva-based Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. It is also part of the WHO’s ACT Accelerator, which aims to ensure equitable access to Covid-19 health technologies.

But sticky points remain :

  • Vaccine prices have not been finalized. While Aylward has assured countries that they will get best price possible through the COVAX facility, it’s still unclear what those prices will be. In an interview with Geneva Solutions, Gavi CEO Seth Berkley said that “COVID-19 vaccines are likely to be cheap”, and a single dose of the vaccine will likely be under US $50.

  • National bottlenecks. Some countries haven’t been able to formally engage with COVAX because it’s a ‘brand new’ process that requires specific legislation that countries may not have yet, said Aylward. Meanwhile, other nations have stalled because they’re not sure how COVAX will deal with bilateral agreements between nations and vaccine manufacturers. These ‘details’ are ‘still being worked out", he added.