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Covax vaccine scheme set to fall short of initial targets with less than a quarter of doses delivered

Exclusive: Health campaigners are concerned the project has been left exposed as a result of its over-reliance on the Serum Institute of India

Samuel Lovett
Science Correspondent
Sunday 09 May 2021 20:08 BST
Covax intends to deliver two billion doses to 92 of the world’s poorest nations by the end of 2021
Covax intends to deliver two billion doses to 92 of the world’s poorest nations by the end of 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)

The global initiative aiming to deliver Covid vaccine doses to the world’s poorest populations is set to fall significantly short of its first round of target allocations, according to data obtained by The Independent.

Initially hailed as a project to ensure the equitable distribution of life-saving jabs, the Covax scheme had hoped to ship a total of 237 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine to 142 countries between February and the end of May, internal documents show.

However, as of Wednesday, some 53.8 million shots had been delivered to 121 nations - just 22.7 per cent of the overall target, and Covax insiders say there’s an acceptance that the programme won’t be able to meet this goal by the end of the month. 

Two streams of production are providing supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Covax: one delivered by the British-Swedish pharmaceutical in partnership with SK Bioscience, a South Korean firm; and another by the Serum Institute of India (SII), the largest manufacturer of vaccines in the world.

The SII stream has been responsible for most of the delays after the Indian government placed a ban on exports following another wave of the virus in the country that has killed many thousands and overwhelmed hospitals in some cities.

Throughout March and April, roughly 90 million shots due to be funnelled into Covax were held back by the SII, according to a source. 

During a recent joint presentation held by the World Health Organisation, Gavi (a vaccine promotion alliance) and Unicef - all of which are involved in running Covax - it was acknowledged that deliveries from SII are to remain “uncertain in [the] coming months”, with officials now exploring the possibility of expanding the AstraZeneca/SK Bioscience stream.

This manufacturing network was also hit with delays in the early stages of the programme, which first launched in February, but has since increased the scale of its production and aims to deliver its first balance of allocations in two shipments over the coming weeks.

Global Justice Now, a campaign group on issues of trade, healthcare and justice, said the Covax scheme has been left exposed as a result of its over-reliance on the Serum Institute of India.

“India is in crisis and should be able to mass-produce doses for its own population without impacting supply in other countries,” said Heidi Chow, a senior policy manager. “That Covax is so dependent on a single producer proves that bilateral deals with Big Pharma companies can never go far enough.”

Gavi, a leading force in the project, said the immediate priority was to ensure that those countries which have had their first delivery go on to receive a second batch of shots. “We know that there are doses available and we urge those countries that have surpluses to share them with Covax so we can protect the most vulnerable everywhere in the world,” a spokesperson said.

Covax intends to deliver 2 billion doses to 92 of the world’s poorest nations by the end of 2021, with the aim of immunising 20 per cent of their respective populations. Other, richer countries that are signed up are also entitled to accept doses from the scheme.

Although the bulk of this supply is to be provided by AstraZeneca, the project has struck deals with other manufacturers to source vaccine shots.

A total of 1.2 million doses are to be provided by Pfizer in the first round of allocations, which will increase to 14 million in the second round.

Earlier this week, Moderna said it will supply 34 million doses to Covax throughout this year - a figure that could rise to 500 million in the future - giving a much-needed boost to the struggling initiative.

Countries have also begun donating surplus supplies to the scheme. Sweden, Spain and France have all said they intend to share their excess doses, with the French government expecting to donate more than 10 million shots by the end of the year, The Independent understands.

Norway and New Zealand have also chosen to return the doses they received as a result of their Covax membership, with the latter agreeing to still pay for the 1.6 million shots it was due to receive.

The UK has expressed its intent to donate some of its doses - it has ordered enough supplies to immunise its population three times over - but discussions are ongoing with Covax officials to determine the specific amount.

But despite this progress, health campaigners are concerned that the current vaccine inequalities are only going to widen in the months to come. “We’re still very much at the beginning of what will be a long, challenging journey of rolling out vaccines,” said Stacey Mearns, senior technical adviser for emergency at the International Rescue Committee.

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