• COVAX aims to ensure all countries have access to a safe, effective vaccine.
  • Richer countries gain access to a portfolio of potential vaccines, avoiding the risk of backing any one candidate.
  • Lower income countries get financial support and equal access to a vaccine once available.
  • The WHO estimates that a safe, effective vaccine will be available next year.

The only real hope of ending the COVID-19 pandemic is with a vaccine. But at a time of rising nationalism and fraying global cooperation, how can we ensure rich countries don’t stockpile the shots, leaving poor countries out in the cold?

There is a plan to ensure the whole world has fair access to a potential vaccine: COVAX. It’s coordinated by the World Health Organization in partnership with GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance; CEPI, the Centre for Epidemics Preparedness Innovations, and others. So far, 156 economies have signed up, representing nearly two thirds of the global population.

Under COVAX, countries will have “guaranteed access to the world’s largest portfolio of vaccine candidates,” according to Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization.

COVAX aims to procure and deliver doses of a safe, effective and approved vaccine for fair distribution around the world. Some 64 high-income countries have already joined the scheme, including 29 from “Team Europe” as part of an agreement with the European Commission, while 92 low- and middle-income economies will be eligible for support.

coronavirus vaccines
Nine potential vaccines are in the final stage of clinical trials
Image: Statista

“By pooling financial and scientific resources, these participating economies will be able to insure themselves against the failure of any individual vaccine candidate and secure successful vaccines in a cost-effective, targeted way,” the WHO explained in a news release.

The UK has signed up for COVAX, even though a vaccine being developed there by Oxford University and AstraZeneca is among candidates currently in phase 3 clinical trials, the last hurdle before potential approval.

The initial aim of COVAX is to have 2 billion doses available by the end of 2021, which, according to GAVI, should be enough to protect high risk and vulnerable people, as well as frontline healthcare workers.

The COVAX scheme was on the agenda at the first day of the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit. Speaking at a virtual session on COVID-19, Anita Zaidi, Director of Vaccine Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said she agreed with the WHO's estimate that a vaccine would be ready to be widely deployed by the middle of next year.

Zaidi said that a global approach like COVAX was needed to counter the risk of vaccine nationalism - when countries rush to secure a stockpile for their own citizens - and to ensure access for poorer countries.

Nigeria's Health Minister, Osagie Ehanire, said that his country strongly supported the initiative, stressing the global nature of the pandemic and the need for solidarity.

"It’s a problem of mankind, and it should be a solution of mankind," he said.

According to the World Health Organization, COVAX is funded by governments, vaccine manufacturers, other organisations and individuals, with $1.4bn committed so far and more funds urgently needed. The scheme is just one of the pillars of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT)-Accelerator initiative, which was launched in April by the WHO, the European Commission and France in response to the pandemic.