GENEVA – The World Health Organization and its partners said they hope to provide Africa with about 30% of the COVID-19 vaccines the continent needs by February, badly missing the 60% vaccination coverage goal that African leaders had once hoped for this year.
At a press briefing Tuesday, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the massive disparity in vaccination rates between rich and poor countries a “solvable problem” and called again for pharmaceutical companies to prioritize the U.N.-backed initiative known as COVAX, which is designed to share vaccines globally.
But drugmakers — including Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — have shown no indications they are eager to switch their current tactics, which involve appealing to rich countries and their regulators to authorize booster shots.
Tedros called last week for a “moratorium” on the use of boosters in healthy populations until the end of the year. Countries including Israel, France and Germany have already started dispensing third doses to certain people; the U.K. announced plans on Tuesday to offer boosters to anyone over 50 as well as younger people who might be more vulnerable to COVID-19.
In the U.S., the FDA is going to publicly debate the topic of boosters this week. In an opinion piece this week, two top FDA officials and senior WHO scientists wrote in the Lancet that the average person doesn't need a booster shot.
To date, fewer than 4% of Africans have been fully immunized and most of the 5.7 billion vaccine doses administered around the world have been given in just 10 rich countries.
COVAX has missed nearly all its targets and has now resorted to begging rich countries to share their vaccine doses.
Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of vaccines alliance Gavi, said COVAX expects to have 1.4 billion doses ready for delivery by the end of this year, about one quarter fewer than its original goal.
Afreximbank President Benedict Oramah warned that booster shots in Africa would require $500 million to $600 million more “on the conservative side,” and if the cost of logistics is included, that would mean $1 billion a year.
Strive Masiyiwa, the African Union's envoy for COVID-19 vaccines, also called for export restrictions and intellectual property rights to be lifted to allow vaccine production within Africa.
In June, WHO and its partners launched a hub in South Africa intended to transfer technology needed to make the vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, but none of those companies have yet agreed to share their vaccine recipes.
“It’s not an unreasonable call, because our neighbors in the U.S. supported these companies to produce some of these vaccines,” Masiyiwa said. “Now let this miracle to be available to all mankind.”
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