COVAX asks for additional funding in case new COVID variant emerges

The Spanish Ambassador to Argentina Francisco Javier Sandomingo attends the arrival of vaccines donated by the Spanish Government through the United Nations COVAX initiative in September 2021. [EPA-EFE/Juan Ignacio RONCORONI]

It has been over a year since the COVAX vaccination initiative, led by Gavi, delivered its first shipment. Recently supply outran demand for the first time. The initiative’s focus is now turning towards fundraising to prepare for future variants.

Marie-Ange Saraka-Yao, Gavi’s Managing Director for Resource Mobilisation, Private Sector Partnerships and Innovative Finance, talked with EURACTIV to explain the need for additional funding and the shift from supply to demand. 

Could you briefly explain the need for additional funding and what COVAX is preparing for?

What we want is people to be ready. Especially because we are close to the finish line we do not want to get back to the previous mode. We are asking for flexibility and one example is the variant adaptive vaccine. Every three or four months, we have had a new variant. It’s very important that we are able, in case a new variant arrives, to support countries so that we don’t end up back where we were in 2020 where they were at the back of the queue. And we know that this is feasible. We are launching a pandemic vaccine pool so in case there is a new variant, we are able to be in the queue for new variant adaptive vaccines. Equity means shots in arms but also having the right vaccine and the right not to go back to that disequilibrium.

How would it work?

Once we have this pool, if tomorrow there’s a new variant, we can immediately put money on the table with manufacturers so that they equally consider low- and middle-income countries. In this way, we don’t get back to that vicious circle that we all know too well. This is giving equality for new vaccine access which is critical.

Let’s talk about money. How much money does COVAX want to pledge and what for?

We have launched an investment opportunity and what we are asking at this stage is $1.1 billion to cover urgent delivery, support, and ancillaries, to support countries, ramp up their capacity. We cover the support to countries, transportation, all these aspects, you know, being able to have more vaccinators to launch the campaign so that we can accelerate the rhythm of the vaccination. So that’s this first part. And the second part is really to respond to shocks, which is launching this pool. For that, the idea would be to eventually get $2.7 billion. But already having early pledges will allow us to be able to bid in case a new variant occurs. 

We talked about COVAX’s plans for the future. What is the situation at the moment, when COVAX has delivered 1.4 billion doses to 245 countries?

What we can see is that all the efforts and investments are really starting to mature and produce results. But of course, there are a lot of differences and gaps in coverage. Now we are able to give countries visibility on supply and meet their preferences. What is really happening is we are being able to help countries increase their capacity to take COVID vaccine doses over time, and most importantly, meet their own countries’ strategies. The main point right now is the pandemic is not over. So it’s really about finishing that job and bringing them to the immunity that they want. Because until the gap between countries’ immunisation exists, we still have a risk of resurgence and also lives lost. 

In January COVAX donated its one-billionth COVID vaccine. How is the situation changing on the ground?

As I said, coverage is uneven. In January, we had 34 countries that had less than 10% coverage. Now, with the effort on delivery in some of these countries, it reached 19%. In a two-month period, you can actually accelerate immunisation if you have the funding. That’s why we came in now and say: ‘look, we really need that funding, because actually, the effort can pay off relatively quickly’. And when countries have the resources and logistics and so on, they can increase their vaccination rate.

At the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed that access to vaccines was the biggest issue. Did it shift now to delivery?

For a long time, the issue was access to vaccines because we didn’t have cash available and the limited pool of vaccines was already taken. Now we have made great progress and indeed for the first time, really supply outran demand. I think it’s a credit to all the supporters that we have had around the world. We have that visibility, and we can give countries visibility on each type of vaccine also. They can pick depending on their own choices and vaccination strategy. But at the same time when vaccines start coming in, that’s when you realise: ‘okay, oh, I sort of had this thing but actually, I need more of this’.  Because certain vaccines in certain countries have different rollout requirements than in other countries. That’s why indeed, now the focus is on the delivery. And that’s why we urgently need funding for deliveries so that everything is set up when the vaccines arrive at the airport: the logistics, the vaccinators, and also that there is training provided.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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