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WHO head blasts vaccine inequalities, hits drugmakers over profits

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) condemned what he called inequity in global vaccine distribution during the international group's executive board meeting on Monday.

The Associated Press reports WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus bemoaned that one poorer country, identified by a WHO spokesperson as Guinea, had only received 25 coronavirus vaccines doses thus far while almost 50 wealthier nations had already administered around 40 million doses.

“Just 25 doses have been given in one lowest income country — not 25 million, not 25,000 — just 25. I need to be blunt: The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure,” said Tedros.

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“It’s right that all governments want to prioritize vaccinating their own health workers and older people first. 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," he added.

“Vaccines are the shot in the arm we all need, literally and figuratively,” he said, praising the achievement of creating a vaccine less than a year after the pandemic broke out around the world.

“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.”

According to Tedros, COVAX, a program supported by WHO that seeks to distribute vaccines to all countries based on need, has secured 2 billion vaccines from five producers. Deliveries are expected to begin in February.

Tedros castigated vaccine makers for appearing to prioritize profits over accessibility, saying, "The situation is compounded by the fact that most manufacturers have prioritized regulatory approval in rich countries, where the profits are highest, rather than submitting full dossiers to WHO."

Last week the pandemic surpassed 2 million coronavirus-related deaths as multiple new strains continue to crop up around the world such as in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Japan. 

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan has warned that COVID-19 guidelines must still be followed throughout this year even as vaccines become more available.

"It's really important to remind people, both government as well as individuals, on the responsibilities and measures we need to practice for the rest of this year at least, because even as vaccines start protecting the most vulnerable, we're not going to achieve any levels of population immunity, herd immunity, in 2021," said Swaminathan.