The head of the World Health Organization has criticised drugmakers’ profits and vaccine inequalities, saying it’s “not right” that younger, healthier adults in rich countries get vaccinated against Covid-19 before older people in poorer countries.
Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus kicked off WHO’s week-long executive board meeting — virtually from its headquarters in Geneva — on Monday by lamenting that only 25 vaccine doses have been provided in a single poor country, while over 39 million doses have been administered in nearly 50 richer nations.
“Just 25 doses have been given in one lowest income country — not 25 million, not 25,000 — just 25. I need to be blunt,” Tedros said. He did not specify the country, but a WHO spokeswoman identified it as Guinea.
“It’s right that all governments want to prioritize vaccinating their own health workers and older people first,” he said. “But it’s not right that younger, healthier adults in rich countries are vaccinated before health workers and older people in poorer countries. There will be enough vaccine for everyone.”
Tedros, an Ethiopian who goes by his first name, nonetheless hailed the scientific achievement behind rolling out coronavirus vaccines less than a year after the pandemic erupted in China, where a WHO-backed team has now been deployed to look into origins of the coronavirus.
“Vaccines are the shot in the arm we all need, literally and figuratively,” Tedros said. “But we now face the real danger that even as vaccines bring hope to some, they become another brick in the wall of inequality between the worlds of the world’s haves and have-nots.”
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.
“We aim to start deliveries in February,” he said. “COVAX is ready to deliver what it was created for.”
That target date could be a tall order, because a key producer of vaccines for the developing world — the Serum Institute of India — has not confirmed a date and predicted that its rollout might not happen before March or April.
In his opening remarks, Tedros aired some of his toughest public words yet toward vaccine makers, criticizing “bilateral deals” between them and countries that the WHO says can deplete the effectiveness of the COVAX facility — and went further to raise the issue of profits.
“The situation is compounded by the fact that most manufacturers have prioritized regulatory approval in rich countries, where the profits are highest, rather than submitting full dossiers to WHO,” he said.
That appeared to allude to a shortage of data the U.N. health agency says it has received from vaccine makers so that the WHO can approve their shots for wider emergency use.