The world is on the edge of a “catastrophic moral failure” in the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, with just 25 doses administered across all poor countries compared with 39m in wealthier ones, the head of the World Health Organization has said.
It was the sharpest warning so far from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus about the dangers of vaccine hoarding since inoculations started being administered in 49 mostly high-income countries.
Guinea is the sole low-income country to have delivered any shots so far, last week providing doses of the Russian Sputnik vaccine to a mere 25 people, including its president.
Tedros told an annual meeting of the WHO’s executive board that it was wrong to see people at low risk in wealthy countries being vaccinated while most of the world still did not have access to the jabs.
“It’s not right that younger healthier adults in rich countries are vaccinated before health workers and older people in poorer countries,” he said.
A global vaccine-sharing fund, Covax, is preparing to deliver its first doses in February but is competing with nations striking their own, often more lucrative deals with manufacturers to secure limited supplies of vaccines.
There had been 44 such deals last year and 12 signed so far in January, Tedros said, accusing countries of “going around Covax, driving up prices and attempting to jump to the front of the queue”.
“This could delay Covax deliveries and create exactly the scenario Covax was designed to avoid, with hoarding, a chaotic market, an uncoordinated response and continued social and economic disruption,” he said.
“The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.”
The WHO director-general also criticised some manufacturers for prioritising getting their vaccines approved in wealthy countries, where they could make greater profits, over submitting regulatory data to the WHO to speed up the process of having the vaccines approved for inclusion in the Covax portfolio.
“Ultimately these actions will only prolong the pandemic,” he added, urging countries to avoid making the same mistakes made during the HIV pandemic, in which wealthy countries were accused of hoarding treatments for years until the death toll rose to more than 8,000 people a day.
The identification of more infectious variants of the virus in the past month has intensified the scramble for vaccines among countries who can afford it. The Guardian understands that talks among European countries over building a “humanitarian stockpile” of inoculations for refugees and others who may not be vaccinated by their governments have been temporarily shelved.
Israel, Bahrain and the UAE have delivered the most doses per capita, with more than one in four Israelis having received a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech formulation. Just over 6% of people in the UK have received a vaccine dose, along with more than 4% of US citizens.
Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Centre estimates there will not be enough vaccines to cover the world’s population until at least 2023.