The global project to share vaccines against COVID-19 is struggling to put out more than 300 million doses in the latest sign that the problem of vaccinating the world now has more to do with demand than supply.
Last year, wealthy nations applied most of the available vaccines to inoculate their own citizens first, meaning less than a third of people in low-income countries have so far been vaccinated compared with more than 70 percent in the wealthiest nations.
However, as supply and donations have increased, poorer nations face hurdles such as gaps in cold-chain shortages, vaccine hesitancy and a lack of money to support distribution networks, public health officials said. .
In January, COVAX, the global vaccine program run by Gavi and the World Health Organization (WHO), had 436 million vaccines to allocate to countries, according to a document published in mid-February.
But low-income nations only requested 100 million doses for distribution in late May, the first time in 14 allocation rounds that supply has outstripped demand, according to the COVAX Independent Vaccine Allocation Group document.
Asked for comment, a Gavi spokesman said COVAX was now in a situation where there was enough current supply to meet demand, but acknowledged that launching vaccines was a problem in a number of less developed nations.
“We will only close the vaccine equity gap once and for all if we can help countries deploy vaccines quickly and at scale,” the spokesperson said.
The vaccines that are not assigned by COVAX in this round may be assigned again later, according to data revealed to AmericanPost.News.
As rich countries open up their economies, the WHO and other public health experts warn that the slow rollout of vaccines in poorer regions will give the coronavirus a chance to mutate again and potentially create new variants.
The low demand for vaccines in the January allocation is explained in part by recent increases in supplies. COVAX has already allocated tens of millions of doses to be delivered in the first quarter and delivered its billionth dose in January.
Officials involved in distributing vaccines said that meant countries were reluctant to accept more doses they couldn’t use.
A summit to address distribution challenges will be held this Wednesday in Abuja, Nigeria, convened by the African Union Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance with the assistance of WHO, Gavi and others who will launch injections in Africa.
There were hopes that African countries could deliver billions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines given their experience treating deadly diseases from Ebola to malaria.
But two years after the crisis, a survey seen by Reuters by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in January on the equipment needed to scale up vaccine distribution highlighted some of the challenges.
It found “critical gaps” in 44 of the 55 African Union member states: 24 countries said they needed refrigerators, 18 needed freezers, 22 required cold storage, and 16 did not have enough cold storage.
The problem is particularly acute for COVAX because the Pfizer-BioNTech injection that must be kept super cold has replaced the AstraZeneca vaccine as the main vaccine offered by the global program.
Some African countries, such as Burundi and Guinea, have gaps at all points in the cold chain, from the national level to local distribution centers, the UNICEF survey showed.
The findings are likely to highlight growing concerns that COVAX did not invest quickly enough in infrastructure and equipment for the countries it was delivering vaccines to.
The problem is compounded by a lack of funding and because countries have not received enough notification of deliveries, particularly donations, making it difficult for them to plan vaccination campaigns, public health officials said.
Officials involved in distributing vaccines in Africa also said that more focus was needed on communicating the importance of getting vaccinated and addressing misinformation.
“Communication is one of the biggest problems… If we don’t send the messages correctly, everything else we do will be useless.”
Money has also started to dry up for global initiatives as wealthier nations look to put COVID behind them.
Gavi says it has only raised $195 million of the $5.2 billion it requested this quarter. The money is used to purchase and ship vaccines, as well as to provide syringes and delivery support to countries.
Efforts to distribute tests and therapies, such as new antivirals, face similar cash flow problems, according to Philippe Duneton, chief executive of Unitaid.
“There’s not much money left over from what I’ve received,” he said, referring particularly to therapy.
“There is about $100 million, but we need more to make access to these drugs, including access to testing, affordable for the international community.”
The COVAX mechanism receives alliance funds to be able to function, so it is surprising that for the first time the demand is exceeded.
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