GENEVA (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken appealed Thursday for other countries to inject another $2 billion into a U.N.-backed program to ship coronavirus vaccines to the world’s poorest countries — at a time when rich countries have seized the lion's share of them.
Blinken's call came as the United States co-hosted a one-day conference that drummed up hundreds of millions of dollars in support from governments and philanthropy groups to help buttress $6.3 billion that's already been raised for the COVAX program.
The program has begun donating millions of vaccines to 92 low- and middle-income countries in recent months. But the World Health Organization — insisting that no one is safe from the pandemic until everyone is — has repeatedly decried a lack of equity in the vaccine rollout, with rich nations like the U.S. nabbing the vast majority of doses so far.
Donors either chipped in funds -- Swedish prime minister Stefan Lofven said Sweden was increasing its contribution to COVAX from $20 million to $280 million, in the day's biggest pledge -- or announcing plans to share doses with the beneficiary countries.
“In addition to our NZ$17 million (about $12 million) contribution, New Zealand will also donate enough COVID-19 vaccines for more than 800,000 people,” New Zealand's prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said.
That contribution — amounting to more than 1.6 million doses of an unspecified two-dose vaccine — marked the start of efforts through COVAX to get countries with excess doses to share them with the low- and middle-income countries.
Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance — a Geneva-based public-private partnership that help runs COVAX — said about $400 million was raised Thursday toward the goal of locking in 1.8 billion doses for the program this year.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates Philanthropy Partners and Google.org were among philanthropists that contributed, committed or “mobilized” tens of millions of dollars worth of support on Thursday, Gavi said.
But access to vaccines — which has been constrained by hoarding by some wealthy countries and by limits to production — is a more pressing need than cash right now. Overall, COVAX hopes to have 2 billion doses available by the end of 2021.
Marie-Ange Saraka-Yao, who heads resource mobilization for Gavi, said commitments of money in advance help COVAX build capacity and give "clear visibility to manufacturers that the money is there for them to build the supply — and for us to buy.”
"If you wait for the vaccine to be on the shelf, it can be too late — it would have already been bought by someone else,” she told reporters after the conference.
Blinken, speaking in recorded remarks, laid out an ambition to raise COVAX’s target of vaccinating 20% of populations in the affected countries, even as he praised the pledges and donations made so far.
“To beat this pandemic, we need to aim much higher. With $2 billion more to COVAX, we can reach approximately 30% of people in target countries, rather than 20%,” he said
“That’s not all we must do. We need to produce more safe, effective vaccines, and we need to distribute them more rapidly,” Blinken said.
He did not propose new U.S. funds, but highlighted the Biden administration’s contribution of $2 billion to COVAX in March and its plans to add another $2 billion through 2022.
“We recognize that as long as COVID is spreading and replicating anywhere, it poses a threat to people everywhere,” Blinken said.