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U.N. chief: time for national plans to help fund global COVID-19 vaccine effort


By Michelle Nichols and Stephanie Nebehay

NEW YORK/GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. chief Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday it is time for countries to start using money from their national COVID-19 response to help fund a global vaccine plan as the World Bank warned that "broad, rapid and affordable access" to those doses will be at the core of a resilient global economic recovery.

The Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator and its COVAX facility - led by the World Health Organization and GAVI vaccine alliance - has received $3 billion, but needs another $35 billion. It aims to deliver 2 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021, 245 million treatments and 500 million tests.

At a high-level virtual U.N. event on the program, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the financing gap was less than 1% of what the world's 20 largest economies (G20) had committed to domestic stimulus packages and "it's roughly equivalent to what the world spends on cigarettes every two weeks."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged $100 million to GAVI to help poorer countries gain access to a vaccine and Johnson & Johnson Chief Executive Alex Gorsky committed 500 million vaccine doses for low-income countries with delivery starting in mid-2021.

"Having access to lifesaving COVID diagnostics, therapeutics or vaccines ... shouldn't depend on where you live, whether you're rich or poor," said Gorsky, adding that while Johnson & Johnson is "acting at an unprecedented scale and speed, but we are not for a minute cutting corners on safety."

U.S. President Donald Trump has said that a vaccine against the virus might be ready before the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election, raising questions about whether political pressure might result in the deployment of a vaccine before it is safe.

"We remain 100 percent committed to high ethical and scientific principles," Gorsky said.

GAVI Chief Executive Seth Berkley said that so far 168 countries, including 76 self-financing states, have joined the COVAX global vaccines facility. Tedros said this represented 70% of the world's population, adding: "The list is growing every day."

China, Russia and the United States have not joined the facility, although WHO officials have said they are still holding talks with China about signing up. The United States has reached its own deals with vaccine developers.

'LONG HAUL'

World Bank President David Malpass said the pandemic could push 150 million people into extreme poverty by 2021 and the "negative impact on human capital will be deep and may last decades."

"Broad, rapid and affordable access to COVID vaccines will be at the core of a resilient global economic recovery that lifts everyone," he said.

Guterres said that the ACT-Accelerator was the only safe and certain way to reopen the global economy quickly.

But he warned that the program needed an immediate injection of $15 billion to "avoid losing the window of opportunity" for advance purchase and production, to build stocks in parallel with licensing, boost research, and help countries prepare.

"We cannot allow a lag in access to further widen already vast inequalities," Guterres said.

"But let's be clear: We will not get there with donors simply allocating resources only from the Official Development Assistance budget," he said. "It is time for countries to draw funding from their own response and recovery programs."

U.N. Secretary-General Guterres called on all countries to step up significantly in the next three months.

Billionaire Bill Gates told the U.N. event that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had signed an agreement with 16 pharmaceutical companies on Wednesday.

"In this agreement the companies commit to, among other things, scaling up manufacturing, at an unprecedented speed, and making sure that approved vaccines reach broad distribution as early as possible," Gates said.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab - a co-host of the meeting along with Guterres, the WHO and South Africa - urged other countries to join the global effort, saying the ACT-Accelerator is the best hope of bringing the pandemic under control.

Said Merkel: "We're in for the long haul and we need more support."

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Paul Simao and Jonathan Oatis)

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