PARIS – European governments and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged Thursday to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency funds for a global effort aimed at ensuring eventual vaccines against the coronavirus are quickly available to poor countries — though it remains unclear how that might actually happen.
The money will go to vaccine development and distribution efforts coordinated by a World Health Organization program called ACT-Accelerator. That includes Covax, an ambitious but troubled global project to buy and deliver virus vaccines for the world’s poorest people.
None of the experimental COVID-19 vaccines being tested has finished the advanced testing needed to prove their safety and efficacy, but several might have data to present in the coming weeks.
“If people in low- and middle-income countries miss out on vaccines,...the virus will continue to spread, and the economic recovery will continue to be delayed,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Thursday at the Paris Peace Forum, where the pledges were announced.
France and the European Union's executive commission each promised 100 million euros (about $118 million) for the WHO vaccine efforts. Spain promised 50 million euros (about $59 million), and the Gates Foundation promised $70 million (about 59.3 million euros).
Germany and other European governments have already pledged similar funds. The new financing is in addition to the funds that countries previously contributed to Covax.
Criticizing rich countries that he said are ordering many more vaccines than they have people, Tedros said, “This is a moment for saying ‘no’ to vaccine nationalism and ‘yes’ to all our shared humanity.”
Britain, for example, has ordered 350 million vaccine doses for its population of about 67 million, although some vaccines require two doses. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly promised that U.K. residents will be “at the front of the pack” for vaccine delivery.
The vast majority of the world’s expected COVID-19 vaccine supplies through 2021 have already been reserved by rich countries. It's therefore very unlikely that the developing world will get any significant amounts next year unless vaccine manufacturers can significantly ramp up capacity or intellectual property issues are addressed.
WHO has avoided pushing drug companies to surrender their intellectual property rights on vaccines, arguing that such rights are not the main barrier to increasing the global supply. But many critics say WHO and its partners have been too unwilling to challenge the pharmaceutical industry.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU is also funding efforts to ramp up manufacturing capacity to meet the huge global demand for a coronavirus vaccine.
The governments chipping in funds Thursday have already signed multiple bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies to secure their own supplies.
Europe and the United States have seen a dramatic resurgence in reported virus infections in recent weeks. Many European countries are back under various levels of lockdowns and with their hospitals under heavy strain.
“We do care, of course for European citizens, but also for the rest of the world,” von der Leyen said at Thursday’s meeting. “The logic is that no one is safe until everyone is safe.”
WHO chief Tedros said that the U.N. health agency is seeking $28.5 billion overall for COVID-fighting efforts, including $4.5 billion in emergency funds for the rest of this year.
The money committed Thursday does not go to any specific vaccine. Pfizer appears to have the most advanced candidate at the moment, based on preliminary data it released this week, but it does not have a deal so far with Covax.
Meanwhile, the United States, China and Russia have said they do not intend to join Covax, which is facing potential shortages of money, cargo planes and refrigeration.
Maria Cheng in London contributed.
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