COVAX dissected and found wanting on providing vaccines to low income countries

April 7, 2021: A new analysis of the COVAX initiative to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to poor countries uncovers major ethical and governance problems as well as health risks for the target countries. COVAX involves the World Health Organisation, governments, philanthropic initiatives like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and pharmaceutical companies in the purchase of vaccines from the companies to make them available to low-income countries.

The author, Harris Gleckman, argues that it is a vehicle for the corporate sector to use public funds to shape the vaccine market, while coopting and marginalising the democratic structures responsible for health.

The Report, jointly published by Friends of the Earth International and the Transnational Institute, unpicks the governance structure of COVAX to show that the World Health Organisation comes a distant third behind GAVI the vaccine alliance, and CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. Yet the WHO provides many staff, as well as credibility.

This analysis shows that the attractive term “multi stakeholder structure” obscures a non-accountable system which still leaves pharmaceutical corporations in control of intellectual property, manufacture and pricing decisions for global vaccine distribution.

In an earlier time, the WHO would be managing the task of global production and distribution of the vaccines required to stop the pandemic.

Gleckman scrutinises the actual objective of COVAX – to immunise 20 per cent of the populations of those countries which cannot afford to purchase the vaccines. Yet the scientific advice is that 60 per cent to 70 per cent of a population need to have the antibodies to create “herd immunity” or safety for the whole population, which COVAX cannot deliver.

At December 27, 2020, total financial contributions to the COVAX Facility were US$1.519 billion, of which Australia had contributed US$28.8 million. This is 25 per cent short of the initial US$2 billion target.

He also highlights the role of COVAX in the emerging soft-power competition between the ‘West’ – COVAX -and the international vaccine programs of India, Russia and China. This competition is another expression of the failure of the global multilateral institutions – based on governments – to address the pandemic. This will likely lead to a global public health failure.

“For human rights supporters the scoping of the problem leads more toward a solution that combines a WTO waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-related products and processes, a General Assembly declaration that health is a global public good, a multilateral global humanitarian relief fund underwritten by developed country governments, and an international distribution system directed by the World Health Assembly,” argues Gleckman.

Harris Gleckman is a senior fellow at the Center for Governance and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and Director of Benchmark Environmental Consulting. Gleckman has a PhD in Sociology from Brandeis University. He was a staff member of the UN Centre on Transnational Corporations, head of the New York office of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and an early member of the staff for the 2002 Monterey Conference on Financing for Development.