Terming the development and approval of COVID vaccines less than a year after the emergence of Novel Coronavirus as a "stunning scientific achievement", the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Monday expressed it's concern over the "distribution of the vaccine between the poor and rich counties".
Director General Tedros Adhanonom Ghebreysus, who has repeatedly warned richer countries against excluding poorer ones by cutting bilateral deals with vaccine suppliers, took his rhetoric up a notch in his opening remarks at an executive board session.
In a speech in Geneva opening a World Health Organization executive board meeting, he said the promise of worldwide equitable access to coronavirus vaccines was now at serious risk.
Quoting official figures, he explained that while 39 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine had been administered in almost 49 "wealthy" countries, only 25 doses have been provided to the "lower-income" countries.
The wealth gap in global vaccine access is worryingly stark: more than one in four Israelis have received a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, while the U.S. has already vaccinated just over four per cent of its citizens. "Not 25 million; not 25,000; just 25", he exclaimed. "I need to be blunt", Tedros said.
He said 44 such deals were struck in 2020 and at least 12 have already been signed this year.
He noted the WHO-backed COVAX program, which aims to get vaccines out to all countries, rich or poor based on need, has so far secured 2 billion vaccine doses from five producers and options on a billion doses more.
Dr Tedros described this "me-first" attitude that he was seeing as "self-defeating".
"Ultimately these actions will only prolong the pandemic", he said, urging countries to avoid repeating the same mistakes made during the H1N1 (swine flu) and HIV pandemics. Once countries cover those groups, he said, they should then prioritize getting vaccines to other countries.
Covax, the World Health Organization co-led globally-pooled vaccine procurement and distribution effort, has struck agreements with five manufacturers for two billion vaccine doses.
Ninety-two countries - all of them low- or middle-income - will have their vaccines paid for by a fund sponsored by donors.
"We aim to start deliveries in February", said Tedros.
The global scramble for shots has intensified as more infectious variants of the virus circulate.
He said such moves are driving up prices of the vaccines. "There will be enough vaccine for everyone". But it's not right that younger, healthier adults in rich countries are vaccinated before health workers & older people in poorer countries. The pathogen is believed to have originated in an undetermined bat species.
"More than 70 per cent of emerging diseases discovered in recent years are linked to animal-to-human transmission", he said.