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Coronavirus vaccines: US, China and Russia absent from WHO's equal access COVAX coalition

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Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) at a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, March 9, 2020.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) at a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, March 9, 2020.   -   Copyright  Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP, file
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The World Health Organization (WHO) and partners said countries comprising more than 60% of the world’s population have signed up to its international initiative to buy coronavirus vaccines, but said they still need billions of dollars to pay for the shots.

However, numerous countries that have signed their own bilateral deals with vaccine makers have declined to participate or to use the facility to secure their own vaccines, including China, Russia, and the United States.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the Covax facility, which WHO is heading up alongside with vaccines alliance GAVI and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovations (CEPI), will help bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control.

Dr Richard Hatchett, the CEO of CEPI - who is leading Covax vaccine research and development work - said that "COVID-19 cannot be beaten one country at a time. We must be able to share lifesaving vaccines globally at the same time."

'We sink or swim together'

Tedros said Covax was aiming to provide 2 billion doses of vaccine available by the end of next year, although rich countries have reserved more than half of the world’s global capacity to produce such shots.

"This is not charity, it's in every country's best interest. We sink or swim together," he said.

The WHO chief also said that funding was an issue, with only $3 billion (€2.55 billion) committed so far whereas $15 billion (€12.78 billion) is needed.

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO's chief scientist, said the agency is hoping that any vaccine used globally might be at least 70% effective, but that a vaccine with 50% efficacy would also be considered.

Why have major nations not signed up?

Last month the WHO said it was engaged with 172 countries and vaccine developers were engaged in the COVAX process. Of the 156 countries to have joined the global vaccine scheme, 64 are recognised as higher-income nations.

However, absent are superpowers the United States and China, as well as Russia.

Donald Trump's administration has been accused of selfish behaviour and vaccine nationalism that will damage poorer nations, after securing future supplies through bilateral deals. The president has pledged to pull the United States out of the WHO, which the White House has reportedly branded as corrupt and pro-China.

Dialogue is reported to be continuing with Beijing, but China and Russia have been concentrating on developing their own vaccines.

The European Commission is backing the COVAX scheme, as are the UK, Australia, Canada and Japan.

France is said to be ready to provide funding for the WHO project but is opting to secure its own provisions via a joint EU scheme. Germany is also seeking supplies of potential vaccines through the European scheme, according to reports quoting Berlin sources.