UK joins COVAX scheme on deadline day

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COVAX aims to deliver two billion vaccines against COVID-19 by the end of 2021.  Photo by: Dado Ruvic / Reuters

LONDON — The United Kingdom on Friday joined the international COVAX facility for researching, manufacturing and equitably distributing vaccines against COVID-19, confirming its participation in the scheme on deadline day.

It joins at least 76 wealthy states, including Japan and Norway, in signing up to the scheme. The World Health Organization has faced an uphill battle in convincing high-income countries to participate in full, however.

While some donors are only contributing funding, the U.K. will also be procuring vaccines through COVAX, according to a spokesperson for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, one of the organizations leading the project. The U.K. government had not confirmed this at the time of publication.

“COVAX is a groundbreaking way to pool R&D & procurement risks across multiple vaccines.”

— Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general, WHO

COVAX is part of the Access to COVID-19 Tools, or ACT Accelerator, for finding tests, treatments and vaccines against COVID-19. It is led by WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, alongside Gavi.

It aims to deliver 2 billion vaccines by the end of 2021, and is currently supporting research on nine vaccine candidates in clinical trials in the United States, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region.

A key element of COVAX is its advanced market commitment financing tool, which is intended to support the participation of 92 low- and middle-income countries, to help ensure equitable distribution of a successful vaccine.

The announcement of the U.K.’s participation was made by Alok Sharma, secretary of state for business, energy, and industrial strategy.

He said: “The global effort to find a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine is not a competition, but is among the most urgent shared endeavors of our lifetime — it benefits us all to be better equipped to fight this virus … Today’s landmark agreement complements the various vaccine deals the U.K. has already made and ensures we have the best chance of accessing a safe and effective vaccine for people in the U.K. as soon as one becomes available, as well as supporting access in poorer countries.”

However, as of last week, the ACT Accelerator was still facing a shortfall of around $35 billion, according to WHO.

The United States is not joining the facility. France and Germany are contributing financing but will not procure vaccines through the program, sources told Reuters.

The European Commission announced its participation at the end of August, along with a donation of €400 million to the facility, but said the conditions of its involvement were still to be decided. Japan followed on Sept. 16, donating $164 million.

A full and updated list of participating states, and their roles, will not be available until Sept. 21, according to the Gavi spokesperson.

Among the countries not joining is Malaysia, prompting a protest from the national medical association. "The Health Minister must respond now or he may have to answer to the rakyat [public] later on why Malaysia is the last in the queue for the vaccines," said Dr. Ganabaskaran Nadason, president of the Malaysian Medical Association.

WHO has positioned COVAX as a counterweight to “vaccine nationalism,” which it is feared could lead to unequal access to a successful COVID-19 vaccine.

“Unless we have an international plan to manage it [a vaccine] fairly, there will be unnecessary price spikes, with unneeded hoarding in some places and life-threatening shortages in others. That suits no one’s interests,” WHO’s Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted earlier this month.

He continued: “COVAX is a groundbreaking way to pool R&D & procurement risks across multiple vaccines. It enables countries to place collective bets on all vaccines in the portfolio & scale up the manufacturing capacity so that whichever works, all COVAX members can access them at the same time … The more countries [who are] involved, the more likely it is that vaccines will be rationally distributed & COVID19 will be stamped out.”

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.