Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, the UNICEF representative in India, was at Serum Institute of India (SII), Pune, when the shipment containing 600,000 doses of Covid vaccines left for Ghana. A second shipment of 504,000 doses, sent from Mumbai, landed in Ivory Coast, West Africa, this week. In a candid conversation, she talks about the COVAX Facility, the initiative to provide equitable access to Covid vaccine, and how it will help the world end the pandemic. Excerpts:
Q: How did you feel as the first batch of vaccines left for its destination from the Serum Institute of India (SII) under the COVAX Facility?
A: It was a historic moment as the first batch of 600,000 doses of Covid vaccine left for Ghana from the SII in India. It is for the first time that so many partners have come together to ensure that the vaccines that have the potential to save billions of lives reach people all over the world equitably. It is a major step in the global effort to beat this pandemic and a landmark achievement towards global equitable access to these life-saving vaccines.
Q: How many vaccine doses will be provided under this facility and to whom?
A: The first batch of 600,000 doses have already reached Ghana. The COVAX Facility, co-led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and WHO, together with UNICEF, aims to dispatch 80 million doses by March and provide at least 2 billion doses of approved Covid-19 vaccines by the end of 2021.
As part of the COVAX Facility, UNICEF is leading efforts, in collaboration with the PAHO Revolving Fund to procure and supply doses of Covid-19 vaccines for the 92 low and lower middle-income countries on behalf of the COVAX Facility to enable them to protect their frontline healthcare and social workers, as well as other high-risk and vulnerable groups. Of these, PAHO will be procuring and supplying doses to 10 countries in Latin America which are: Bolivia, Dominica, El Salvador, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines. The COVAX Facility has put in a system of determining the destinations and recipient countries and number of doses.
Q: How many of these doses will be provided by India?
A: Of the 2 billion, majority will come from SII, Pune, which has a licence agreement with AstraZeneca and Novavax. India’s manufacturing base is playing a critical role in closing the gap between rich and poor countries. UNICEF from India will ship the vaccines to 82 low and middle-income countries participating in the COVAX Facility.
Q: Why are these vaccines being procured only from SII in India?
A: COVAX Facility provides WHO-certified vaccines. AstraZeneca vaccine got WHO-certification on 15 February 2021. As more vaccines get the certification from WHO, based on their price and affordability, other suppliers are being added to the pool.
Q: What is the role of UNICEF in COVAX?
A: UNICEF is a proud and privileged partner of the COVAX Facility. Its role starts with the signing of the agreements for the procurement of the vaccine. We work with countries to see that they have put in place the protocols being advocated by the WHO Strategic Advisory group of experts and also to see that all the systems are in place for safe storage, transportation and administration of the vaccine.
UNICEF ensures safe, timely and efficient transportation of these vaccines from countries where they are produced to the countries where they are to be received. It works with governments and partners to make sure that vaccines reach those who need them the most.
Besides, UNICEF is also supplying a billion syringes that will be needed to administer the vaccine safely. UNICEF started stockpiling these syringes in 2020 itself to meet this anticipated demand. These 4.5-inch-long syringes, if we put them end-to-end will cover the length of the whole world thrice. UNICEF is also buying 10 million safety boxes by 2021, so that used syringes and needles can be disposed in a safe manner by personnel at health facilities, thus preventing the risk of injuries and blood borne diseases. Every safety box carries 100 syringes.
Q: And how do you think COVAX Facility is going to help in ending the pandemic?
A: The equitable access to vaccines will contribute greatly towards containing the pandemic which has disrupted every aspect of life. Due to the pandemic, children and women have not received some of the essential services they needed. Now that the frontline workers will be vaccinated, these services will resume fast.
With these shipments, we are part of the historic journey to provide equitable vaccine access to lower income and lower middle-income countries to ensure no one is left behind and that every vulnerable person around the world is protected from Covid-19 and its direct and indirect impact.