Individual vaccine arrangements undermine fair distribution, WHO head says

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By Reuters Staff

ZURICH (Reuters) - The World Health Organization on Thursday urged nations producing COVID-19 vaccines not to distribute them unilaterally but to donate them to the global COVAX scheme to ensure fairness.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the plea as China hashes out agreements across Africa, Russia distributes shots in Latin America and the European Union eyes giving vaccines to poorer countries, all outside of the COVAX facility.

Tedros said nations striking one-on-one deals undermine COVAX's goal of equitable access, adding the WHO's scheme can even accommodate requests from governments that "prefer to give their donations to certain countries, because they are their neighbours or because they have some relationship".

"What we can do, if that comes through COVAX, is the earmarked donation can go to those countries and the COVAX stocks can go to other countries," Tedros said during a virtual press conference from Geneva.

"So we can strike a balance."

COVAX, also backed by Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi the Vaccine Alliance, is due to ship small volumes of vaccines from AstraZeneca and Pfizer, even as wealthier countries have snapped up most Western doses.

Meanwhile, vaccine diplomacy is ascendant, with Russia talking with Croatia over deliveries while the first shipments of its Sputnik V shots are bound for Mexico.

In recent weeks, China has also offered hundreds of thousands of doses to Namibia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea.

The European Union is working on its own vaccine-sharing mechanism, potentially undercutting the WHO's push.

WHO adviser Bruce Aylward said wealthier EU countries and Canada had approached COVAX about sharing doses, though so far without result.

"There was a lot of interest," Aylward, also speaking at Thursday's press conference, said.

"Unfortunately, we have not seen yet the translation of that interest ... to (vaccination donations) to COVAX."

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