Global officials welcome steps to shore up COVAX gaps

New efforts are under way to replace the COVAX vaccine deliveries from India’s Serum Institute that were diverted to help the country battle its surge, with signs that mRNA vaccine makers will add more doses to help expand the global reach of immunizations.

At a briefing today, however, the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) top official said ongoing surges in India and Brazil are a reminder that many countries are still, with vaccines part of the answer, but not the only answer.

“We call on everyone to continue to follow WHO and national advice on keeping safe: maintain physical distance, avoid crowds, wear a well-fitted mask that covers the nose and mouth properly, open windows, cover coughs and sneezes and clean your hands,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD.

The WHO recently put out an urgent call for countries to donate 20 million doses to help fill the gap in the COVAX program, an effort to ensure equitable distribution of vaccine to middle- and lower-income countries. Bruce Aylward, MD, MPH, senior advisor to Tedros, said COVAX has so far distributed about 20 million doses, which were used as first doses for health workers and high-risk groups, and that filling the 20 million gap will allow people to receive their second doses.

So far, a handful of countries have announced donations, with Sweden the latest country to donate. In a statement today, the WHO welcomed Sweden’s announcement that it will share 1 million doses. Tedros said, “Sweden’s generous support is very timely as it comes at a time when the world needs it most.” WHO officials said France, New Zealand, and Norway have also announced donations.

Gavi-Moderna agreement

In another development poised to boost COVAX supply, but not until the second half of the year, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, today announced that it has signed an agreement with Moderna  to buy 500 million doses of its mRNA vaccine for the program. The announcement comes just days after the WHO approved the Moderna vaccine for emergency use listing, clearing the way for broader use through COVAX.

The agreement will make 34 million doses available in 2021, with 466 million expected for 2022. The deal also include options for variant-adapted vaccines.

Seth Berkley, MD, Gavi’s chief executive officer, said in a statement, “Expanding and having a diverse portfolio has always been a core goal for COVAX, and to remain adaptable in the face of this continually evolving pandemic – including the rising threat posed by new variants. This agreement is a further step in that direction.”

Tedros said today that there’s still a $19 billion funding gap to support the ACT Accelerator, which includes COVAX, and the group estimates that it will need $35 to $45 billion more to vaccinate most of the world’s adults. He said G7 country leaders could mobilize a substantial part of the funding, and health officials hope for a show of support at the G7 meeting next month.

India surge steams ahead

Over the weekend and through today, India reported daily case totals of well over 300,000, and on May 1 recorded nearly 3,700 deaths.

Regarding the country’s vaccine situation, the head of the Serum Institute in an interview published in the Financial Times yesterday said the country’s vaccine shortage will probably last for months, given that the government didn’t adequately plan for a second wave.

In a related development, a group of science advisors to India’s government told Reuters that they warned officials in early March about a new more transmissible variant, but the government didn’t impose any major new restrictions to curb the spread, which allowed unmasked people to attend large religious festivals and political rallies.

To help with the vaccine shortfall, Pfizer said it is in talks with India to speed approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, according to Reuters. Also, Pfizer’s chief executive officer Albert Bourla, DVM, PhD, said the company is donating more than $70 million worth of medicines to India, which includes steroids, anticoagulants, and antibiotics.

More global headlines

  • Nepal is asking retired medical workers to help with its surge and has banned oxygen exports, according to CNN.
  • Thailand, known for its strong actions in earlier spikes, is battling a third surge and today reported record deaths, according to Reuters, which said the B117 variant is fueling the latest activity.
  • The European Union is urging member countries to ease travel restrictions for vaccinated people to boost the tourism sector, alongside an “emergency brake” to quickly and temporarily curb travel to limit the risk of new variants arriving in the region.
  • The global total today passed 153 million cases, rising to 153,081,313 with 3,206,509 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

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