GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization pleaded with rich countries on Monday to check before ordering additional COVID-19 vaccine shots for themselves whether that undermines efforts to get vaccine shots to poorer nations.
Wealthy nations have snapped up several billion vaccine doses while some countries in the developing world have little or none. European nations have given financial support to the U.N.-backed COVAX effort to get vaccines to the world’s most vulnerable people and are considering sharing some of their own doses — though they haven’t specified when or exactly how many.
On Friday, leaders of the Group of Seven industrial powers said they would accelerate global vaccine development and deployment and support “affordable and equitable access to vaccines” and treatments for COVID-19. They cited a collective $7.5 billion from the G-7 to U.N.-backed efforts.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus thanked the G-7 countries for their “significant” pledges. But he said after talks Monday with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier that “even if you have the money, if you cannot use the money to buy vaccines … having the money doesn’t mean anything.”
He said some rich countries’ approaches to manufacturers to secure more vaccines are “affecting the deals with COVAX, and even the amount that was allocated for COVAX was reduced because of this.” He didn’t name those countries or give other details.
Tedros added that rich countries need to “cooperate in respecting the deals that COVAX did” and make sure before they seek more vaccines that their requests don’t undermine those deals.
“But I don’t think they’re asking that question,” he said.
Tedros, who has previously warned that the world faces a “catastrophic moral failure” if COVID-19 vaccines are not distributed fairly, said he understands the political pressures that leaders in high-income countries face.
Tedros acknowledged at a later WHO news conference on Monday that sharing doses was hard at a time of shortages and urged a significant increase in the production of vaccines.
Western governments and key vaccine makers confronting the pandemic are facing calls to ensure that vaccines reach the neediest people in poor countries such as by giving up intellectual property protections that could allow for more widespread production of generic vaccines.
Joining Tedros at the WHO news conference, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious diseases expert, acknowledged such questions were “always a sensitive issue.”
Fauci cited the example of the U.S. government’s AIDS program, which helped balance manufacturer profits with developing countries’ access to drugs.
“I think at least we do have some precedent that you can make arrangements with companies that would allow them both to maintain a considerable amount of profit at the same time, that areas of the world that don’t have resources can share in a way that would be lifesaving for literally millions of people,” Fauci said.
Tedros thanked French President Emmanuel Macron for committing 5% of France’s doses to COVAX although France has not specified when those vaccines will be shared.
WHO also said Monday it had reached an agreement with Chubb Limited on behalf of COVAX for a global vaccine injury compensation program. The initiative will allow people in poorer countries to get compensation for rare but serious side effects linked to COVID-19 vaccines distributed through COVAX until next June.