By MAGGIE RULLI and ERIN SCHUMAKER, ABC News
(ACCRA, Ghana) — The first shipment of vaccines touched down in Ghana’s capital Wednesday morning, marking a pivotal moment in the world’s fight against COVID-19.
The 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that arrived by plane from India are the first vaccines distributed to low- and middle-income countries by COVAX, the global initiative for equal vaccine distribution.
“This is a momentous occasion, as the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines into Ghana is critical in bringing the pandemic to an end,” the World Health Organization and UNICEF said in a joint statement.
“The only way out of this crisis is to ensure that vaccinations are available for all.”
Months after vaccines were first approved and distributed in wealthier nations, COVAX has begun sending their lifesaving shipments to lower-income countries. UNICEF, which is helping coordinate the rollout on the ground, told ABC News that Wednesday’s shipment to Ghana is just the beginning. More vaccines are set to arrive at the Ivory Coast tomorrow and in several countries in Asia in coming days.
COVAX has a goal of delivering 2 billion vaccine doses to participating countries this year, which the WHO and UNICEF called “an unprecedented global effort to make sure all citizens have access to vaccines.”
The United States is now a leader in fundraising for COVAX, with the vaccines funded in part by U.S. taxpayers. President Joe Biden announced last week that the U.S. would donate $4 billion for vaccines in low- and middle-income countries, a change from former President Donald Trump;s administration, which had declined to participate in the COVAX effort.
Brandon Locke, policy and advocacy manager for the ONE Campaign, which aims to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, told ABC News that Wednesday’s shipment is good news.
“I think that it’s easy to forget just how impressive the COVAX facility is in terms of what we managed to accomplish in such a short period of time. So it’s really happy to sort of see the fruits of that labour start to materialize … it’s a very good start. But we’re just starting the battle.”
While today is a major step forward, there’s a long way to go, according to Locke. “We can’t understate just how inequitable the distribution is at the moment,” he said. “There is a really massive course correction that we need to sort of put things in perspective and sort of get vaccination where it needs to be in low- and middle-income countries.”
According to the United Nations, 75% of vaccinations are happening in just 10 countries, while 130 countries have not received a single dose.
Wealthier nations have bought up so many vaccines, Locke explained, that if they were to completely vaccinate their populations, they would still have 1.2 billion vaccines left over. He acknowledged that there’s a delicate balance. On one hand, countries want to protect their citizens’ health. On the other, the virus poses a global threat. “When we say none of us are safe until all of us are safe, it isn’t just a cliche,” he added.
There’s also the risk of the new variants of the virus cropping up in countries without access to vaccines. If the virus spreads unchecked, “we’re just going to see it come back in more resistant ways that can potentially not be tackled by our existing vaccines and medicines,” Locke said.
“What we really need to do is make sure that we’re slowing the spread of the virus as quickly as possible. And to do that, we need to make sure that the most vulnerable populations and health care workers in all countries are vaccinated. That’s just science.”
It’s a point that has been consistently reiterated by WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. On Monday, Tedros asked rich countries to check with the WHO to ensure their deals with vaccine manufactures weren’t undermining COVAX’s efforts. Funding COVAX isn’t helpful if the program can’t use the money to buy vaccines, he explained.
In addition to urging governments to fully fund the COVAX initiative, the ONE Campaign is appealing to richer countries to give their extra vaccine supplies to lower- and middle-income countries.
“It’s not about charity,” Locke said. “We’re only safe when everyone around the world has been vaccinated. So I think we need to communicate that to citizens, that this is about enlightened self-interest. It’s in everybody’s interest to end the pandemic as soon as possible.”
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