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Pandemic 'Long Way From Over,' Says WHO Amid Stark Global Vaccine Access Divide

The coronavirus pandemic is far from over, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed Monday, as he lamented new variants, vaccines shortages, and a global disparity in access to inoculations.

“There is a huge disconnect growing, where in some countries with the highest vaccination rates, there appears to be a mindset that the pandemic is over, while others are experiencing huge waves of infection,” Tedros said at a press briefing.

He expressed further concern about areas experiencing a continued high number of Covid-19 cases and places that had previously made progress are facing a new wave of cases and hospitalization.

“The pandemic is a long way from over,” he said, “and it will not be over anywhere until it’s over everywhere.”

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Among the demands Tedros laid out were for vaccine manufacturers to quickly fill the supply shortfall faced by COVAX, the international effort co-led by the WHO to get shots to lower-income countries.

“Pfizer has committed to providing 40 million doses of vaccines with COVAX this year, but the majority of these would be in the second half of 2021. We need doses right now and I call on them to bring forward deliveries as soon as possible,” he said.

Tedros also lamented that the majority of the 500 million doses Moderna signed a deal with COVAX for are will not be distributed until 2022, urging the company to instead “bring hundreds of millions of these forward into 2021 due to the acute moment of this pandemic.”

The Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest maker of vaccines, is now facing an export ban as the country is being ravaged by the Covid-19. After India’s “devastating outbreak” retreats, Tedros said the institute must also “catch up on its delivery commitments to COVAX.”

He also urged “high-income countries that have contracted much of the immediate global supply of vaccines to share them now.”

Tedros’s pleas to expand access came amid ongoing criticism of “vaccine apartheid.”

According to Bloomberg News‘s Covid-19 tracker, 1.48 billion doses have been administered in 176 countries—fully vaccinating just 9.7% of the global population. The distribution, however, has been “lopsided.” The outlet notes that “countries and regions with the highest incomes are getting vaccinated about 25 times faster than those with the lowest.”

In the U.S., for example, at the current pace, it will take another four months to cover 75% of the population. Yet, if the current pace continues, “it would take years to achieve a significant level of global immunity,” according to Bloomberg‘s analysis.

Such disparity has added fuel to social justice and humanitarian aid groups’ demand that all nations back a temporary intellectual property waiver for coronavirus-related products, including vaccines as well as treatments and diagnostics. Earlier this month, the U.S. indicated its support for a waiver of patents on vaccines.

The White House announced Monday that it would give 20 million doses of the three vaccines currently in use in the U.S.—ones made by Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna—to other countries over the coming weeks. That is in addition to a promised 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is not currently authorized for use in the United States.

But Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program, called 20 million “a depressingly tiny figure compared to the global need; akin to tossing a bucket of water at a raging inferno. If India were to receive all 20 million doses, it would vaccinate less than 1% of its population, beyond what it has already.”

“Communities around the world have no idea when, or if, the vaccine they desperately need to protect their people from death and further suffering from the coronavirus will arrive,” he said.

Maybarduk added that donated doses “are no substitute for a plan of scale and ambition to end the pandemic” and called for “invest $25 billion in urgent vaccine manufacturing to make eight billion doses of mRNA vaccine within a year’s time and share those vaccine recipes with the world.”

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