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Covid-19: UN leaders plead 'don't stockpile vaccines' as global rollout stalls

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres calls out 'very unfair distribution of vaccines in the world', as Covax initiative struggles to meet distribution benchmarks
A medical stockpile at the vaccine warehouse where doses of the vaccine are preserved before their distribution in Irxleben, eastern Germany (AFP/File photo)

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and several other UN division chiefs have spoken out against developed countries creating "stockpiles" of Covid-19 vaccines, calling on the international community to share doses more equitably to help end the pandemic.

"I'm very concerned with this very unfair distribution of vaccines in the world," Guterres said in an interview broadcast Sunday by the Canadian channel CBC. 

"It's in the interest of everybody to make sure that as soon as possible and in a fair way, everybody gets vaccinated everywhere and that vaccines are considered to be a truly global public good," he said.

'The inequitable distribution of vaccines is not just a moral outrage, it's... self-defeating'

- Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO

The UN chief criticised the "self-interest" of rich countries for building up vaccine supplies beyond the needs of their populations. 

"First, don't stockpile vaccines," he said, adding that it "doesn't make sense". 

"We have been appealing to developed countries to share some of the vaccines that they have bought and in many situations, they have bought more than what they need."

'A lot of hoarding'

The World Health Organisation (WHO) echoed Guterres' concerns later on Monday, warning against a widening gap between the number of coronavirus vaccines obtained by wealthy countries versus those distributed to poorer nations through the global Covax initiative.

"The gap between the number of vaccines administered in rich countries and the number of vaccines administered through Covax is growing every single day," UN health agency chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a virtual conference hosted by the United Arab Emirates to address global immunisation.

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"The inequitable distribution of vaccines is not just a moral outrage, it's also economically and epidemiologically self-defeating," Tedros added.

"As long as the virus continues to circulate anywhere, people will continue to die, trade and travel will continue to be disrupted, and the economic recovery will be further delayed," he said. 

Earlier on Monday, the secretary general lamented that the WHO's Covax international system of vaccine aid to disadvantaged countries is having "difficulties" because "there's been a lot of hoarding". 

He said that ending the pandemic "depends a lot on having the possibility to vaccinate as quickly as possible the population all over the world", and he pleaded in favour of a mechanism powered by the G20 to put in place a global vaccination plan.

'We need help' 

Health officials have rolled out more than 510 million coronavirus vaccine doses around the world.

Tedros had called for all countries to begin vaccinating within the first 100 days of the year, but as that deadline nears, 36 countries are still to receive a single dose.

Sixteen of those are scheduled to receive their first doses through Covax within the next two weeks, but the other 20 countries are expected to miss out.

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The UN's children's agency on Monday urged wealthier countries to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines, adding that $510m is needed to support delivery around the world.

"We need help," Unicef chief Henrietta Fore said at the virtual conference. 

"We need vaccine manufacturers to prioritise Covax and work to secure regulatory approval for fast, fair and affordable distribution. We need wealthier nations to donate extra doses through Covax," she continued.

The Covax initiative was expected to deliver some 238 million doses around the world by the end of May, and has so far shipped more than 32 million doses.

The scheme is co-led by the WHO, the Gavi vaccine alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

The novel coronavirus has killed nearly 2.8 million people since the outbreak emerged in China in December 2019.