Rich countries getting new COVID vaccine before poorer ones

Employees pack boxes containing vials of Covishield, a version of the AstraZeneca vaccine, on Nov. 22 at the Serum Institute of India in Pune. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool, File)

NEW DELHI — The company behind a COVID-19 vaccine touted as a key tool for the developing world has sent tens of millions of doses to wealthy nations but provided none yet to the U.N.-backed effort to supply poorer countries, a sign that inequity persists in the global response to the pandemic.

A quarter-million doses from the company were supposed to be available to the vaccine-sharing initiative, called COVAX, by March. But the U.N. agency in charge of deliveries says the first shipments now likely won’t be made until April or May.


It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The company, Novavax, got $388 million from one of the organizations leading COVAX to fast-track the vaccine’s development and help make the shot available in poorer countries.

The investment guaranteed COVAX the “right of first refusal” to the first Novavax doses, but the deal applied only to factories in the Czech Republic, South Korea and Spain, said Bjorg Dystvold Nilsson, spokesman for COVAX co-founder CEPI.

There are other factories that aren’t part of the deal — and their shots are going elsewhere.

The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, has manufactured millions of Novavax doses.

According to India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the institute, more than 28.9 million of those doses were sent to the Netherlands in January and February, while Australia received about 6 million doses. Indonesia also received about 9 million doses in December.

Thousands of other Novavax doses were also shipped from a Netherlands factory to other EU countries.

“Whatever the reason, a vaccine that was believed to be highly suitable for poor countries is now in large part going to rich countries,” said Zain Rizvi, a drug policy expert at the U.S. advocacy group Public Citizen. “It’s tragic that in year three of the pandemic, we still cannot get the resources, attention and political will to solve vaccine inequity.”

The delay is the latest setback for COVAX, which has been repeatedly hit by supply problems and has missed numerous targets to share doses.

Last year, WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus decried the chasm in vaccine supplies between rich and poor countries as a “catastrophic moral failure.”

Vaccine availability has been improving in poorer regions recently, but logistical problems persist.

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