‘Bilateral Deals’ Confound COVAX Vaccine Delivery Plans; Independent Panel Slams Global & WHO Pandemic Response
Johnson & Johnson vaccine research laboratory. The J&J vaccine is one of the COVID-19 vaccines in the pipeline that WHO’s COVAX facility is planning to procure, but COVAX urgently needs US$ 8 billion to cover its commitments, says WHO special adviser Dr Bruce Aylward.

“Escalating bilateral deals” between pharmaceutical companies and World Health Organization (WHO) member states have complicated the global body’s vaccine delivery platform, the COVAX Facility, a number of top WHO officials told the WHO’s Executive Board yesterday in the opening day of the  EB’s 148th session, which focused largely on the pandemic.

“Countries with bilateral deals are urged to be transparent with COVAX so we know what vaccines are going where and we can be sure the unserved are getting served rather than some countries getting double served,” reported Dr Bruce Aylward, special adviser to WHO’s Director-General, urging wealthier countries to ensure that COVAX gets access to the vaccines.

“The unmet demand now for vaccines, evolving viral mutations and escalating bilateral deals, all require us to adjust our strategy and needs for 2021,” Aylward stressed, flagging that while COVAX is ready to distribute vaccines it urgently needs at least US$8 billion to cover its current commitments.

A brand new report released this week by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, however, has made a number of scathing observations about the global handling of the pandemic by countries as well as WHO, including that the response has “deepened inequalities”, the global pandemic alert system “is not fit for purpose”, and that WHO has been “underpowered to do the job expected of it”.

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response said that it was struck by how WHO was “underpowered to do the job expected of it”, and that “inequalities both within and between nations have worsened” as marginalised communities are locked out of healthcare.
WHO Powers To Validate Disease Outbreaks Gravely Limited – Incentives For Countries’ Cooperation ‘Too Weak’ – Says Independent Panel

“The Panel is struck that the power of WHO to validate reports of disease outbreaks for their pandemic potential and to be able to deploy support and containment resources to local areas is gravely limited,” the panel, which is chaired by ‘two former prime ministers, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and New Zealand’s Helen Clark, reported.

“The incentives for cooperation are too weak to ensure the effective engagement of states with the international system in a disciplined, transparent, accountable and timely manner,” it added.

The report by the panel of 11 international experts also observed that “inequalities both within and between nations have worsened as vulnerable and marginalized people in a number of countries have been left without access to health care, not only to treat COVID-19 infection, but also because health systems have been overwhelmed, shutting many out of basic care and services”.

To address this, it stated that “fundamental and systemic change in preparedness” is necessary to introduce a new global framework “to support the prevention of and protection from pandemics”.

But this will need the global community to “come together with a shared sense of purpose and to leave no actor outside the circle of commitment to transformative change”, it acknowledged.

Trends in vaccine access by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response (The Independent Panel) to the 148 Executive Board.

As of 17 January, 50 countries have started administering vaccines. 40 of these were high-income countries, and 95% of the estimated 40 million vaccine doses that have been dispensed so far were done so in only 10 countries.

Numerous member states including Australia, Bangladesh, China and New Zealand expressed their concern about the inequitable access to the vaccine.

Representing the African region, Botswana called for “global solidarity to prioritize investment in affordable and safe COVID-19 vaccines and equitable allocation, based on the principle of fairness”.

Lemogang Kwape, Botswana Minister of International Affairs and Cooperation, described the “great inequality in COVID-19 vaccine availability” as a public health concern. It said that Africa’s response to the pandemic had already been affected shortages in personal protective equipment, ventilators and other essential medical items.

Brazil, currently facing rising COVID-19 infections and deaths as part of its second wave, called for action to ensure equitable access of COVID-19 products and technologies.

“At this critical juncture, this Executive Board should make a strong call for members, WHO, other international entities, and pharmaceutical companies to deliver in full and as a matter of urgency on their pledges and commitments to the fair and equitable distribution of COVID vaccines everywhere,” said Ambassador Maria Nazareth Farani Azevêdo, Permanent Representative of Brazil to the UN Office in Geneva.

Dr Mike Ryan, Executive Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, warned that “case and cluster investigations, contact tracing and support the quarantine of context remain underpowered in almost every country” and “we haven’t expanded the use of rapid diagnostic tests as much as we would like”.

China Appeals for Origin Research Not to Be Politicized

Meanwhile, China appealed for research into the origin of the virus not to be politicized, stressing that the country had “always been open, transparent and responsible”.

After months of delay, A WHO-led investigative team arrived on 14 January in Wuhan to begin what is supposed to be an independent query into the origins of the virus, which first emerged among clusters of people working around a wildlife market in Wuhan.

Leading up to the team’s arrival, however, China has launched an extensive media campaign to try to shift the narrative about the origins of the virus elsewhere – suggesting most recently that it could have come from Southeast Asia. This is despite pre-pandemic research indicating that the SARS-CoV-2 family of viruses pre-pandemic circulates in bats in the Hunan region of south-central China – an area to which Beijing has recently barred access.

The WHO team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Wuhan on Thursday. The US representative to the board said the team’s investigation would only be successful if it had access to a wide range of information “currently in the possession of Chinese authorities”.

In light of China’s clear interest in shaping the virus origins narrative, leading European, American and western Pacific governments have expressed concern about whether the investigative team could really do its work. Last week, WHO’s Dr Ryan clarified that the investigation is not a matter of assigning blame, but “is about finding the scientific answers”.

Even so, Garrett Grigsby, Director of the Office of Global Affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services, said today the WHO expert team currently in China to investigate the origin of the virus would only be successful if it had access to a wide range of information “currently in the possession of Chinese authorities”. This includes animal tests from in and around Wuhan, environmental samples from the markets, comparative analysis of animal and human genetic data and samples.

This message was echoed by the representatives from Japan, Canada, Australia, and Austria, on behalf of the EU.

“We wish to reiterate the importance of the international expert team to be able to access all the necessary studies and information to achieve a scientific, objective and transparent investigation,” said the EB representative for Japan.

“We welcome that the international expert team was finally allowed to travel to China to start their investigation in cooperation with Chinese counterparts. We hold great importance to this investigation, which requires transparency, access to locations and data, and full cooperation. We request to be regularly briefed on the progress,” said Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, Permanent Representative of Austria to the UN Office in Geneva.

Image Credits: Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness, Johnson & Johnson, CGTN.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.