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COVAX Program to Roll Out Tens of Millions of Vaccine Doses Globally

FILE - Workers offload boxes of COVID-19 vaccines distrubuted to lower-income countries under the COVAX initiative, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Feb. 26, 2021.

The global COVAX vaccine distribution plan aims to deliver tens of millions of vaccine doses to low-income countries -- many of them in Africa – in the coming months, top global health officials say, describing this as a turning point in the quest to quash the coronavirus pandemic.

The world’s largest, fastest, and most ambitious vaccine drive delivered 11 million vaccine doses Tuesday to Angola, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria. Between now and the end of May, said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the COVAX facility will deliver 270 million doses to 142 participating countries and economies.

The global initiative was set up last April to ensure that poorer nations aren’t left out of the worldwide scramble for vaccine access. The program, which is projected to cost about $11 billion, is funded by donor nations, foundations and corporations. It is part of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, a global collaboration that works on the development, production, and equitable access to tests, treatments, and vaccines.

Last week, the West African nation of Ghana became the first to benefit from COVAX, receiving 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Among the first recipients were President Nana Akufo-Addo and the first lady, who received their shots on national television Monday in what he said was an effort to boost public confidence in the vaccine. Akufo-Addo plans to vaccinate the rest of his country by the end of the year, he said.

“The world has seen already the great value of the COVAX facility,” he told journalists via teleconference on Tuesday. “COVID-19 is a global problem. It requires a global solution. Unless every country is protected, no country will be safe. We all fell together. Let us all rise together.”

Ivory Coast also launched its COVAX vaccination program this week.

“We've now see Africa's first vaccinations and the COVAX doses in Ghana and Ivory Coast. Truly moving ceremonies in both countries were held yesterday,” said UNICEF director Henrietta Fore. “But what took place on Monday is more than a feel-good story that speaks to our collective best natures. It is a necessary first step that speaks to our collective best interests. The only way out of this pandemic is to ensure vaccination is available around the globe and that people from less wealthy countries are not left behind in the race to be protected.”

Tedros says while the vaccine deliveries are good news, he’s thinking much bigger.

“When the history of the pandemic is written, I believe that the accelerator and COVAX will be one of the standout successes,” he said. “This is an unprecedented partnership that will not only change the course of the pandemic, but will also change the way the world responds to future health emergencies.”

Officials say the next step is to bring vaccine manufacturing to the continent. Currently, most vaccines available to the continent come from the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India. Akufo-Addo said Ghana is working on a plan to manufacture vaccines locally. And Dr. John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the African Union will meet next month to discuss how to do this as a continent.

“All of that speaks to the need for our own ability to stand up and say that we, as the people, of 1.2 billion people, will continue to invest in our own health security, our economic security that increasingly is being threatened by covid-19,” he said. “It is this perspective that we look forward to working with all countries that will be receiving these COVAX vaccines to ensure that they are distributed effectively, [to] provide the appropriate support from the African CDC and partnerships that will enable us to distribute these vaccines in a timely fashion.”

This vaccine rollout, Nkengasong said, is the first step in a thousand-mile journey. But in this voyage, he said, the African continent is -- finally -- keeping step with the rest of the world.