Questions as to whether COVAX is benefiting wealthy countries like Australia over developing nations

By Melissa Coade

Tuesday August 17, 2021

Reports emerge that Australia took hundreds of thousands of Pfizer for domestic needs from the COVAX stockpile for developing nations.
Reports emerge that Australia took hundreds of thousands of Pfizer for domestic needs from the COVAX stockpile for developing nations. (Image: Adobe/Mike Mareen)

A global initiative to deliver two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine to developing nations by the end of the year is half a billion doses short as reports emerge that Australia took hundreds of thousands of Pfizer from the COVAX stockpile, for domestic needs.

COVAX was established to ensure that safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines reached the world’s high-risk and vulnerable populations in 92 low- and middle-income countries and economies. The idea is that the scheme pools funds from wealthier countries to help buy vaccines for themselves and low-income nations.

By ensuring equitable access to vaccines, the promise of the program is that the virus is not circulating globally longer than it has to be, limiting its potential to become more dangerous with the emergence of new variants.

A joint initiative of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and (CEPI), GAVI and the Vaccine Alliance, and working with UNICEF as a delivery partner, the program is focused on rapid, fair and equitable access to vaccine doses so that doses from pharmaceutical partners could be produced at scale as soon as vaccine candidates received regulatory approval. 

Among the vaccines approved by WHO include Pfizer/BionTech, Johnson and Johnson, Moderna, AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, Sinopharm and Sinovac.

Equal access to COVID-19 vaccines, regardless of any state’s ability to pay, ‘is the only global solution to this pandemic’, an explainer video for the program touts.

But for participating wealthy self-financing nations to the program, COVAX was also pitched as an ‘invaluable insurance policy’ to protect its citizens ‘both directly and indirectly’. The two benefits speak to increasing chances of securing vaccine doses for the populations of wealthy nations, and also limiting the chance of the virus coming in from overseas by ensuring all others have access to vaccination too.

According to reports by The Sydney Morning Herald, it would appear that so far the benefit of participating in the COVAX scheme has worked mostly in Australia’s benefit. Critics point to the COVAX remaining half a billion doses behind its goal as proof, alongside the dangerous situation many poorer nations today face with mostly unvaccinated populations and the speedy transmission of the Delta variant. 

In June, the Australian government is reported to have purchased 25 million doses for $123 million from the global COVAX facility when it was desperate to procure more doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

While Australia was only able to secure 2% (or 500,000 doses) from that bumper order, the allocation of COVAX jabs to Australia was double what all of Africa received in the same month.

Britain is also reported to have received about 530,00 doses from COVAX in June.

Australian Council for International Development chief executive Marc Purcell told the SMH that although the COVAX facility was open to countries in genuine need, it was clear that Australia’s neighbours in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia should take priority.

“There’s obviously been a desperation to get the preferable vaccine, Pfizer, from any sources into Australia,” Purcell said.

“But we can’t forget that our fortunes are tied up with reducing and eradicating COVID in the developing countries that surround Australia.”

In addition to sending doses of AstraZeneca to East Timor, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, Australia has donated $130 million towards the COVAX scheme to support developing countries in our region. 

It is the preference for Pfizer — which does not have the same rare risk of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome or TTS (a blood clotting disorder) that has contributed to vaccine hesitancy of the AstraZeneca vaccine among Australians — that may have played a part in the government’s decision to seek out more doses of the former when it had a plentiful supply of AstraZeneca. 

The COVAX scheme has two streams of vaccine supply — one for developing nations, and another for wealthier countries to buy vaccines if domestic supplies are running low. 

Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, called on the prime minister to be ‘straight with the people’ of Australia if he wanted them to have much more confidence in the vaccine rollout.

“If Mr Morrison has had to resort to accessing vaccines intended for developing countries, he should be upfront about that,” Wong said. 

“Of course, if Mr Morrison had done his job last year and secured sufficient supplies, we wouldn’t be in this position.”

Last month, in June, the federal health minister Greg Hunt told reporters in Canberra that an extra 500,000 doses of Pfizer from COVAX would arrive in Australia “in coming weeks”.

Delays in supplies of vaccines to wealthy nations involved in the scheme, such as Canada (with limited domestic production capabilities), also led to the G7 nation being among the first in February to request an early allocation from the COVAX stockpile

Other relatively prosperous countries like New Zealand and Singapore also made requests for an early allocation of COVAX vaccines.

The question being asked of the international COVAX effort, is what it will take to restore the balance of power that sees wealthy countries and pharmaceutical companies continue to engage directly (as Pfizer did with the Biden Administration), and give the program equal bargaining power as an independent vaccine purchaser. 

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