Low-income countries have only received 0.2% of COVID-19 vaccines, the World Health Organization chief said Friday, pointing to a “shocking imbalance” worldwide aggravated by bilateral pharma deals that are fanning remedial inequality.

At a twice-weekly webinar on coronavirus, Tedros Ghebreyesus said that out of 220 countries and economies, 194 have now started vaccination, and 26 have not.

Of those, seven have received vaccines and could start, and a further five countries should receive their vaccines in the coming days, he said.

“More than 700 million vaccine doses have been administered globally, but over 87% have gone to high income or upper-middle-income countries, while low-income countries have received just 0.2%,” said Tedros.

He said most countries do not have anywhere near enough vaccines to cover all healthcare workers or all at-risk groups, never mind the rest of the public.

“There remains a shocking imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines,” said the WHO chief.

‘Pandemic headed in wrong direction’

Tedros’ warning came as Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the organization’s technical lead on COVID-19, told the same webinar that the pandemic’s trajectory around the world is heading in the wrong direction, with six straight weeks of increases in cases and deaths climbing.

“We need to stop thinking of this as one measure or another, or one measure over another,” she said.

All health measures, such as masking, hand washing, physical distancing, and others, are needed as the number of COVID-19 cases surpasses 134 million and deaths exceed 2.9 million worldwide.

“It’s all of these measures together at an individual level, at community levels, supported by leaders supported by governments.”

Countries still waiting to get vaccines

There are 14 countries that have not yet begun vaccination for various reasons, said the WHO chief.

“Some have not requested vaccines through COVAX, some are not yet ready, and some plan to start in the coming weeks and months,” said Tedros, referring to a program the WHO has developed through partners to distribute jabs to nations in need equitably.

COVAX has now delivered more than 38 million doses of vaccine to more than 100 countries and economies in the past 6 weeks, said the WHO.

On average, in high-income countries, almost a quarter of people have received a vaccine, but in low-income countries, it’s one in more than 500, said the agency.

COVAX had been expecting to distribute almost 100 million doses by the end of March, but due to a marked reduction in supply, only about 38 million doses have been delivered, but hopes are high to catch up in April and May, said the briefing.

“COVAX works. It’s a strong mechanism that can distribute vaccines faster and more efficiently than any other mechanism,” said Tedros.

“We understand that some countries and companies plan to do their own bilateral vaccine donations, bypassing COVAX for their own political or commercial reasons,” said the WHO chief.

“These bilateral arrangements run the risk of fanning the flames of vaccine inequity. This is a time for partnership, not patronage.”

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