Healthcare workers administer the COVID-19 vaccine to residents of the Jackson Heights neighborhood at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church on January 10, 2021 in Tampa, Florida.

Octavio Jones | Getty Images

LONDON – The head of the World Health Organization said Monday the fair distribution of coronavirus vaccines was “seriously at risk”.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned of a “catastrophic moral failure”, saying “the recent emergence of fast-spreading variants makes the quick and fair introduction of vaccines all the more important.”

But he added that this distribution could easily become “another building block in the wall of inequality between the world’s owners and non-owners”.

“With the use of the first vaccines, the promise of fair access is seriously jeopardized,” he said at a meeting of the WHO Executive Board.

While more than 39 million doses of various vaccines have now been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries, only 25 doses have been administered in one of the lowest-income countries.

“I have to be dull, the world is facing catastrophic moral failure and the price for that failure is paid for with life and livelihood in the poorest countries in the world.”

At the beginning of his speech, Tedros emphasized that developing and approving safe coronavirus vaccines less than a year after the virus emerged in China in late 2019 was an “amazing achievement and a much-needed source of hope”.

However, he added, “It is not right for younger, healthier adults in rich countries to be vaccinated before health workers and older people in poorer countries.”

“There will be enough vaccines for everyone, but right now we must work together as a global family to prioritize (those) who are most at risk of serious illness and death in all countries.”

Without naming names, according to Tedros, some countries and companies speak the language of fair access but continue to prioritize bilateral deals, bypassing COVAX, which is driving prices up and trying to jump to the top. “That’s wrong,” he said.

COVAX is a global program jointly led by an international vaccine alliance called Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, and the WHO. It was established to ensure equitable access to vaccines for every country in the world. The goal is to deliver 2 billion doses of safe, effective vaccines that have passed regulatory approval and / or prequalification by the WHO by the end of 2021.

The WHO urged wealthier countries that had pre-ordered millions of doses of coronavirus vaccines, such as the US, UK and Europe, to share some of those vaccines with COVAX so they could then pass them on to poorer countries.

Wealthier nations have been accused of “hoarding” more vaccines than they need, even though the vaccine supply is still in its infancy, as mass vaccination – which began in the West in December – is largely still in its first phase of distribution.

Tedros urged countries with bilateral agreements with vaccine manufacturers and controls of supply to “be transparent to COVAX on quantities, prices and delivery dates” and to share their own doses with COVAX once they have vaccinated their own health workers and older populations.