WHO urges EU, Big Pharma unity as J&J seeks US vaccine approval

WHO Europe director Hans Kluge gives a press conference on the outbreak of Covid-19 also known as Coronavirus in Italy, on February 26, 2020 in Rome. (Photo: AFP)
  • Agence France-Presse
  • February 5, 2021 9:16 AM

Copenhagen, Denmark | A World Health Organization chief appealed Friday for European nations and Big Pharma to unite in the struggle to accelerate coronavirus inoculations, as Johnson & Johnson applied for emergency authorisation of its single-shot vaccine in the United States.

Pressure is growing not only on wealthy nations to speed up their stuttering rollouts, but also for a more equitable allocation of precious vaccine supplies to poorer countries, in a push to end a pandemic that has claimed close to 2.3 million lives.

Supply shortages and diplomatic bickering have marred the vaccine rollouts in Europe, where just 2.5 percent of the population has received a first dose, with the production capacity at pharmaceutical plants a source of tension between the firms and EU bosses.

"We need to join up to speed up vaccinations," WHO Europe director Hans Kluge told AFP in an interview.

"Otherwise competing pharmaceutical companies (must) join efforts to drastically increase production capacity... that's what we need."

The virus is known to have infected more than 104 million people globally, and experts have warned that vaccines will only help control its spread and end unpopular and economically painful restrictions if the whole world is covered.

The milestone of 100 million administered doses was passed on Tuesday, but 65 percent of them were in countries the World Bank classifies as high-income.

Kluge reiterated the WHO's call for rich countries to help poorer parts of the world, urging them to donate spare doses after inoculating the most vulnerable parts of their populations.

"We know that in the EU, Canada, UK, US, they all ordered and made deals for four to nine times more doses than they need," he said.

"So my point here is: don't wait until you have 70 percent of the population (vaccinated) to share with the Balkans, to share with central Asia, Africa."

The Red Cross has launched a campaign to get 500 million doses to poorer countries, with its chief warning unequal distribution could "prolong or even worsen this terrible pandemic".

- Variant worries -

Pharma giant Johnson & Johnson asked US regulators on Thursday for emergency authorisation of its vaccine, which offers logistical advantages compared to the already approved Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots because it does not require two doses or super-cold storage.

J&J has said it is on track to supply 100 million doses to the United States if authorised, a major vaccine supply boost to the hardest-hit nation in the world.

But trials have shown the J&J vaccine does not protect as well against a highly transmissible variant first identified in South Africa that is rapidly spreading around the world.

Meanwhile, hopes have been boosted by strong results from Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, which Moscow has offered to a number of countries. The first shipment of the Russian shots has arrived in Iran, which is fighting the Middle East's worst outbreak and has ruled out using Western vaccines.

Serbia has opted for the jab developed by China's Sinopharm, helping it attain Europe's fastest vaccination rate.

- Fighting misinformation -

The new variants and vaccine supplies are not the only concerns. Public health experts and governments are also being forced to fight misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Few African countries have launched mass immunisation schemes yet but there is already growing scepticism about vaccines, fuelled in part by mistrust of the elites in countries such as South Africa.

"What if most people get a third-grade kind of vaccine?" asked Mbali Tshabalala, 35, a resident of the Soweto township in Johannesburg. "It gives me sleepless nights."

While authorised vaccines have been declared safe by experts, Australia said Friday that it would keep a mandatory two-week quarantine for all overseas visitors because it had not seen enough evidence that vaccines limit people's ability to transmit the disease.

But there was some good news from Down Under for tennis fans, as a testing blitz revealed no new coronavirus cases at the Australian Open, putting preparations for the year's first Grand Slam back on track.

Planning was thrown into disarray when a worker at one of the designated tournament hotels became infected.

© Agence France-Presse

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