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Variants are 'wake up call' to vaccinate the world: Gavi CEO

Global vaccine alliance calls for dose sharing and $700 million from Japan

A consignment of Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine arrives at a cold storage facility in Accra, Ghana, in early May.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- The head of Gavi, the global vaccine alliance, has called for more vaccine sharing and additional funding from developed countries to urgently deliver more doses to poor countries as COVID-19 variants evolve and spread.

Gavi, which operates the WHO-backed COVAX vaccine initiative, hopes to raise $2 billion from developed countries and the private sector, including $700 million from Japan, Gavi Chief Executive Seth Berkley told Nikkei Asia.

Gavi will host the virtual Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC) Summit with Japan on Wednesday.

Fast spreading COVID-19 variants may be more contagious and less susceptible to vaccines. This is a "wake up call for the world" that vaccines need to also be delivered to developing countries, said Berkley.

"It is of course not surprising that when you have a global pandemic, and you only vaccinate a small number of wealthy countries, that you are going to have continued mutation and adaptation of the virus," he said.

During an exclusive interview with Nikkei Asia on Monday, Gavi Chief Executive Seth Berkley said the global vaccine alliance is looking for ways to vaccinate 30% of the developing world -- about half its adults -- by early 2022.

The additional funds are needed to deliver 1.8 billion doses. That would be sufficient to vaccinate 30% of the population in the developing world -- about half its adults -- by early 2022.

"We are not where we should be with high income countries having more than a third of their populations [vaccinated] on average, and low-income countries less than 1%," said Berkley.

COVAX aims to deliver 2 billion doses worldwide this year. However, the rollout has been affected by India's huge surge in infections. Vaccine exports from the country's biggest manufacturer, Serum Institute, stalled when domestic vaccine delivery had to be prioritized.

Berkley said export targets will be met by the end of the year, but called for vaccine sharing from developed countries to fill "the short-term gap until larger deals come through."

As part of a strategy to secure enough vaccines, Berkley said COVAX would continue to diversify its vaccine portfolio in terms of technology and geography. It recently announced new purchasing deals with manufacturers including Moderna, Johnson and Johnson and Novavax.

China's Sinopharm vaccine was approved by WHO for emergency use this month. "We are having conversations with every single manufacturer that has vaccines either in the third phase of testing, or have been approved," said Berkley. "Announcements will come in due course for some additional vaccine purchases that we are working on right now," he said.

Berkley said a "thorough review" will be needed for Russia's Sputnik-V vaccine. "We will of course rely on WHO for their review process," he said.

China and Russia have been operating "vaccine diplomacy" but this may not be an optimal stratedy. "Good intentioned efforts to try to provide vaccines to one country or another is really not the way to go," said Berkley.

He said the strategy is undermined when there is no continuous supply, or surrounding countries do not also receive doses. "In a global pandemic, the proper thing to do is to make vaccines available equitably," he said.

In order to increase vaccine production, "we have to go beyond [the] patent question" and encourage technology transfers and close collaborations between companies, said Berkley. "Seventy per cent of vaccine manufacturing is actually quality assurance and quality control, and you need companies to work together."

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