Coronavirus Health

WHO chief warns of ‘moral failure’ as coronavirus vaccine rollout favours wealthier nations

The head of the World Health Organization has criticised inequalities in the global coronavirus vaccine rollout, saying it was “not right” that younger adults in wealthy countries were getting vaccinated before older people or healthcare workers in poorer countries.

Key points:

  • Dr Tedros said one poor country had received just 25 vaccine doses
  • Over 39 million doses have been administered in nearly 50 richer nations
  • He accused drug makers of prioritising vaccine approvals in wealthy countries

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also hit out at the profiteering of drug companies, accusing vaccine makers of targeting locations where “profits are highest.”

Dr Tedros kicked off the WHO’s week-long executive board meeting — which is being held virtually from its headquarters in Geneva — by lamenting that one poor country received a mere 25 vaccine doses, while over 39 million doses have been administered in nearly 50 richer nations.

“Just 25 doses have been given in one lowest income country — not 25 million, not 25,000 — just 25,” he said.

“I need to be blunt: the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure.”

Dr Tedros did not specify the country he was speaking about, but a WHO spokeswoman identified it as Guinea.

A woman wearing a mask and gloves holds a syringe in front of her face.
Dr Tedros said young people in wealthy countries were being vaccinated ahead of vulnerable people elsewhere.(AP: Anupam Nath)

“It’s right that all governments want to prioritise vaccinating their own health workers and older people first,” he said.

“But it’s not right that younger, healthier adults in rich countries are vaccinated before health workers and older people in poorer countries. There will be enough vaccine for everyone.”

Nonetheless Dr Tedros hailed the scientific achievement behind rolling out coronavirus vaccines less than a year after the pandemic began in China, where a WHO-backed team has now been deployed to look into the origins of coronavirus.

“Vaccines are the shot in the arm we all need, literally and figuratively,” he said.

“But we now face the real danger that even as vaccines bring hope to some, they become another brick in the wall of inequality between the worlds of the world’s haves and have-nots.”

COVAX program targeting next month

He noted the WHO-backed COVAX program, which aims to get vaccines out to all countries, rich or poor based on need, has so far secured 2 billion vaccine doses from five producers and options on a billion doses more.

“We aim to start deliveries in February,” he said.

“COVAX is ready to deliver what it was created for.”

An older woman wearing a floral mask sits in a chair as a healthcare worker in PPE gives her a needle
Vaccine manufacturers have been accused of chasing profits in wealthy nations.(AP: Jeremy Selwyn Via Pool)

That target date could be a tall order, because a key producer of vaccines for the developing world — the Serum Institute of India — has not confirmed a date, and predicted that its rollout might not happen before March or April.

In his opening remarks, Dr Tedros aired some of his toughest public words yet toward vaccine makers, criticising “bilateral deals” and raising the issue of profits.

“The situation is compounded by the fact that most manufacturers have prioritised regulatory approval in rich countries, where the profits are highest, rather than submitting full dossiers to WHO,” he said.

That appeared to allude to a shortage of data the UN health agency says it has received from vaccine makers so that the WHO can approve their shots for wider emergency use.

Dr Clement Martin Auer, a board member from Austria, had sharp words and questions for GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, that also with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations is leading the effort on COVAX. 

While calling its principles of equal access to vaccines a “fantastic idea,” Dr Auer faulted COVAX as being “slow”.

He defended the European Union, which counts among its 27 members many of the world’s richest countries, for getting vaccines for its 450 million citizens and being “the single largest donor” in supporting COVAX.

“We were, in the European Union, sceptical that GAVI-COVAX had the means and the capabilities to fulfill its tasks and negotiate the necessary contracts and to secure the needs of our citizens,” Dr Auer said, adding that COVAX management had “rejected” proposals negotiated by GAVI and the EU. 

He said GAVI-COVAX early last year had not included mRNA vaccines like those developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna in the COVAX portfolio.

The WHO has approved Pfizer-BioNTech for emergency use against coronavirus and could approve Moderna this week.


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