COVAX Tackles ‘Last Mile’ of Getting Vaccines into Arms
The South Sudan Minster of Health, Elizabeth Chuei, is receiving the COVID-19 vaccine at Juba Teaching Hospital.

Now that COVAX has enough stock of COVID-19 vaccines, its focus is on vaccination uptake – including encouraging countries to combine campaigns against measles and polio with COVID-19, and even helping with “campaign-style” vaccination drives.

This emerged at a media briefing on vaccine delivery called by the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, of which COVAX is the central pillar, on Thursday.

Ted Chaiban, head of COVID Vaccine Country Readiness at the COVID-19 Vaccine Delivery Partnership, said that COVID-19 vaccination drives provided an opportunity to strengthen “pre-existing health challenges”, particularly cold chain delivery, health management information systems and training health workers. 

“Integrating COVID-19 vaccination into primary healthcare activities such as measles, polio, and the distribution of malaria bed nets has become important,” said Chaiban.

In January, 34 countries had vaccinated less than 10% of their populations, but this was down to 18 – and 15 of these were in conflict areas.

“In everything we do, what’s important is to put countries’ governments and partners at the centre,” added Chaiban.

“The next three to four months are key as countries use campaign-style strategies to accelerate COVID-19 vaccination while also addressing some of these other health priorities they are grappling with.”

Ted Chaiban, Global Lead Coordinator for COVID Vaccine Country Readiness and Delivery, COVID-19 Vaccine Delivery Partnership

COVAX’s vaccine delivery partners, Gavi and UNICEF, helped Burkina Faso with funds to run a rapid vaccination campaign as there was a risk that 100,000 of its Pfizer doses would expire.

“As we speak, there is a campaign on the way in DR Congo to use several hundreds of thousands of doses of vaccine that expire between May and July,” said Chaiban.

However, Gavi CEO Seth Berkley said that the waste of vaccines was well below 10%. 

The demand for vaccines from COVAX in the second and third quarters of the year is around 380 million doses. But last December alone, UNICEF delivered more than 350 million doses on COVAX’s behalf. 

“Both delivery shipments and demand are slowing down, specifically from quarter one to two,” said Eva Kadilli, director of UNICEF’s supply division.

“While there is ample supply of vaccines to satisfy country needs, massive work has also been done to support the overall infrastructure to enable the uptake of vaccines and really turn them to vaccination as we speak,” said Kadilli.

This includes the delivery of over 1.3 billion syringes – both to address COVID-19 surges and to ensure that routine immunisation doesn’t suffer. 

Rosemary Mburu

Rosemary Mburu, Executive Director of WACI Health and Co-Lead of the ACT-A’s civil society platform, said that vaccine hesitancy and a general distrust of science needed to be addressed.

“Even as supply picked up, we still have pockets of hesitancy and really low confidence in science itself,” said Mburu, adding that Omicron had lowered people’s risk perception.

“During the peak, there was a lot of diversion of human resources from different programmes to come in support COVID-19 response, and now with fewer cases, those health care professionals have returned to their usual line of duty, so you find that we don’t necessarily even have enough vaccinators, for example,” she added.

Berkeley stressed that COVAX did not ship any doses unless countries wanted them – and “we try to give countries their first choice of vaccine, and if that is not available, then obviously offering a second choice as well”. 

However, Gavi skirted questions about whether it would buy Johnson and Johnson (J&J) vaccines produced by South African generic company Aspen, following weeks of appeals from the Africa Centre for Disease Control. Aspen is likely to close its J&J production facility as it has yet to receive any orders for its vaccines despite 

Berkley simply said there was “more demand for mRNA vaccines”. However, he added that COVAX was “committed to making all vaccines available that are in the portfolio that meet WHO quality standards and recommendations”.

“The challenge we have is that some companies are going to try to particularly push their vaccines,” he added.

Previously, a Gavi spokesperson told Health Policy Watch  that “COVAX is committed to diversifying global supply, including through the development of regional manufacturing sites, especially in Africa.

“In the case of Aspen, the current overall demand situation means we are currently not in a position to buy large quantities of vaccines. However, we are in discussion to see if a collaboration would be feasible as part of expanding regional supply.”

Image Credits: UNICEF.

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