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UN chief warns ‘vaccine nationalism’ is moving at full speed

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that vaccine nationalism is moving at full speed, leaving poor people around the globe watching preparations for inoculations against the coronavirus in some rich nations and wondering if and when they will be vaccinated.

The UN chief on Wednesday reiterated his call for vaccines to be treated as a global public good, available to everyone, everywhere on the planet, especially in Africa. And he appealed for 4.2 billion in the next two months for the World Health Organisation’s COVAX programme, an ambitious project to buy and deliver coronavirus vaccines for the world’s poorest people.

After a virtual UN meeting with the African Union, Guterres said at a news conference that financing COVAX is the only way to guarantee vaccines will be available in Africa and other developing areas.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a high-level UN General Assembly meeting last week on COVID-19 that the light at the end of the tunnel is growing steadily brighter to end the pandemic. But, he added, vaccines must be shared equally as global public goods, not as private commodities that widen inequalities and become yet another reason some people are left behind.

Tedros said WHO’s cash-strapped ACT-Accelerator programme to quickly develop and distribute vaccines fairly, which includes the COVAX project, is in danger of becoming no more than a noble gesture without major new funding.

COVAX will require an additional 23.9 billion for 2021, he said, stressing that the 28 billion total is less than one-half of 1 per cent of the 11 trillion in stimulus packages announced so far by the Group of 20, the world’s richest countries.

The United Kingdom and Russia have already started vaccinating people against the coronavirus. In the United States, the Pfizer vaccine could get a green light for emergency use in the coming days and the Moderna vaccine in the coming weeks. Canada announced approval of the Pfizer vaccine on Wednesday.

Guterres said Africa’s 54 nations have registered more than 2.2 million cases of coronavirus infections and over 53,000 deaths from COVID-19.

There is real hope that vaccines in combination with other public health measures will help to overcome the pandemic, he said.

But to end it, he added, vaccines must be available to all and most African countries lack the financing to adequately respond to the crisis, due in part to declining demand and prices of their commodity exports.

The director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, said in late November that vaccinations against the coronavirus on the continent might not start until the second quarter of next year. I have seen how Africa is neglected when drugs are available in the past, he told reporters.

Guterres said Wednesday when asked about Nkengasong’s assessment: It is my hope that we’ll be able to do it before the second quarter, but it is true that what we’re seeing today is an enormous effort by several countries in order to ensure vaccines for their own populations. It’s true we are seeing vaccination nationalism moving at full speed, the UN chief said.

If Africa is not properly supported, we will not be able to fight the pandemic, he said. There are several vaccines in the pipeline for COVAX, and it is perfectly possible to deliver if the financing is guaranteed.

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