Amid ‘historic’ rollout, UN vaccine project faces some delay

GENEVA (AP) — A leader of the U.N.-backed project to deploy COVID-19 vaccines to needy people in both rich and poor countries acknowledged Tuesday that the rollout has gone slower than expected in some places because of issues with shipping and approval, but insisted that “ultimately” all doses would be made available.

Dr. Seth Berkley of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, spoke of the hiccups in the COVAX project during an update about its distribution plans. Meanwhile, the U.N. health agency chief said millions of doses are expected to arrive in Angola, Cambodia, Congo and Nigeria on Tuesday, marking new momentum for the program.

Supporters hailed a “historic” week for the unprecedented program to ship the vaccines developed in record time to fight the pandemic. While early troubles involved logistics and approval delays, a leading question now is whether manufacturers will be able to keep up with demand through COVAX, they said.

U.N. officials, governments, civil society groups and others have pleaded with manufacturers to do more to expedite and broaden production of vaccines and ensure fair distribution — insisting that the pandemic can only be defeated if everyone is safe from it.

“The distribution of vaccines has not been as equitable as we would have liked, but it has certainly been more equitable than it would have been otherwise,” without COVAX, said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization.

Dr. Bruce Aylward, a top adviser to Tedros, said “the challenge really remains whether or not now the manufacturers can keep up with the tremendous amount of orders that COVAX is putting through them. But as importantly, that COVAX can access the vaccines and the doses that have been assured to it.”

Ivory Coast and Ghana have started vaccinations this week, and Colombia received doses through COVAX on Monday. Some 11 million doses are expected to be delivered this week — among 237 million doses due to be delivered to 142 countries and territories through the end of May.

That’s a tweaked timetable: Last month, GAVI announced plans to distribute 336 million doses of the vaccine developed and produced by Oxford University and British-Swedish manufacturer AstraZeneca — a pillar vaccine in the COVAX program.

“Some of the timelines have slipped” said Berkley, the CEO of GAVI. “The same number of doses will ultimately be made available.”

COVAX is also to receive 1.2 million doses of a vaccine made and distributed by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German partner BioNTech, which have already shipped doses by the millions to mostly wealthy countries that have bought it.

Berkley said Pfizer has required “additional work” from some countries seeking its vaccine, causing “a delay in rolling out that vaccine as compared to the aspirations we had.” The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine needs storage at ultra-cold temperatures, making rollout complex in hot countries and rural areas, for example.

He said South Korea received doses of that vaccine on Friday, but did not specify how many. He suggested more is to come from COVAX.

“Just keep in mind that it is very early days,” Berkley said. “We’re in the first week of doing rollouts now.”