'No Hiding Behind COVAX Anymore': Critics Say Delivery Shortfall Shows Dire Need for Vaccine Patent Waiver
A new analysis released Thursday shows that the global vaccine initiative COVAX has delivered just one in five of the Oxford/AstraZeneca doses it said would arrive in struggling countries by next month, a shortfall that progressive campaigners cited as further evidence of the need to more aggressively combat vaccine inequities by suspending patent protections.
“COVAX was never intended to go far enough or fast enough to end the pandemic. And we now know it’s not capable of achieving even its limited scope.”
—Heidi Chow, Global Justice Now
“COVAX was never intended to go far enough or fast enough to end the pandemic. And we now know it’s not capable of achieving even its limited scope,” Heidi Chow, senior campaigns and policy manager at Global Justice Now, said in a statement.
“There is no hiding behind COVAX anymore,” added Chow. “Rich countries need to support an intellectual property waiver for Covid-19 vaccines and force big pharma to share their vaccine blueprints with the world.”
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Drawing on data from UNICEF and GAVI—two organizations helping run COVAX—The Guardian‘s analysis finds that “large countries such as Indonesia and Brazil have so far received about one in 10 of the Oxford/AstraZeneca doses they were expecting by May, while Bangladesh, Mexico, Myanmar, and Pakistan are among those that have not received any doses of the vaccine through the program so far.”
“A handful of countries such as Moldova, Tuvalu, Nauru, and Dominica have received the full amount they were allocated, but the vast majority of those in the scheme have so far received a third or less of what they were allocated,” The Guardian noted. “In Africa, Rwanda has received just 32% of its allocation, the biggest percentage on the continent, ahead of countries including Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which have each received about 28% of the doses they are expecting.”
In an address earlier this month, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO)—another partner in the COVAX initiative—acknowledged that the global vaccination program is lagging behind its targets and blamed the shortfalls on a “scarcity” of doses.
While Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and other major vaccine manufacturers have made commitments to COVAX, much of their supply has gone to wealthy nations, which now have huge surpluses as much of the developing world struggles to administer a single dose.
“The problem is not getting vaccines out of COVAX; the problem is getting them in,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on April 9. Tedros, who called COVAX a “strong mechanism,” has also voiced support for a patent waiver proposal introduced at the World Trade Organization (WTO) by India and South Africa.
That proposal—which would enable generic manufacturers to replicate vaccine formulas—has garnered the support of a majority of WTO member nations, but rich countries such as the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom have sided with the pharmaceutical industry and blocked the waiver.
“Getting the world vaccinated is not about some feel-good gestures, like a few billion dollars for COVAX… It means pulling out all the stops to produce and distribute billions of vaccines as quickly as possible.”
—Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research
Instead of temporarily suspending intellectual property rules, those wealthy nations have provided billions of dollars in funding for COVAX, investments that civil society organizations have decried as far from sufficient to promote the kind of vaccine manufacturing scale-up necessary to meet global needs.
“This is not a plan to end the pandemic,” Public Citizen’s Peter Maybarduk said last week in response to a COVAX fundraising initiative hosted by the U.S., which has pledged $4 billion to the vaccine-sharing program since President Joe Biden took office in January.
Maybarduk argued that in addition to supporting India and South Africa’s proposed patent waiver, “the U.S. government urgently should invest $25 billion in a new program to vaccinate the world.”
“The U.S. government and partners can retrofit facilities to produce eight billion mRNA vaccine doses, enough for half the world’s population,” said Maybarduk. “This investment will pay for itself many times over by preventing trillions of dollars in economic loss from slower global vaccination.”
“Absent this extraordinary, necessary manufacturing effort,” Maybarduk warned, “many of the world’s people will not be vaccinated for years to come, if ever.”
Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), echoed that point in a recent blog post, writing, “Getting the world vaccinated is not about some feel-good gestures, like a few billion dollars for COVAX, the Bill Gates inspired initiative to make vaccines available in developing countries.”
“It means pulling out all the stops to produce and distribute billions of vaccines as quickly as possible,” Baker added. “To do this, we need the cooperation of the whole world and the elimination of all the barriers to the production and distribution of vaccines.”