As leaders of the world’s richest nations voiced support at the weekend’s G20 summit for fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to the developing world, Indonesia’s state-owned pharmaceutical company warned two of the most promising vaccines would be “out of the question” for its population.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also raised concerns that no major vaccine agreements had yet been struck for poorer nations, even as rich countries had bought up huge numbers of doses from pharmaceutical firms.
Indonesia’s BioFarma president Honesti Basyir said the requirement for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to be stored at temperatures of minus 70C and minus 20C respectively ruled them out for Indonesia because of the cost involved in overhauling the country’s cold-chain distribution network to handle transportation.
“Indonesia does not have such capabilities, and it is hazardous if this vaccine is not stored at the proper temperature. In fact, it will be damaged so that later when it is given to the community, it will be dangerous,” Mr Honesti said.
In comparison, the CoronaVac vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac — which BioFarma has agreed to produce locally pending regulatory approval — need only be stored at between 2C and 8C. CoronaVac is one of three experimental COVID-19 vaccines China has been using to inoculate more than a million people under an emergency use program.
His comments have underscored the myriad difficulties involved in ensuring fair distribution of vaccines across the developing world, even beyond the access issues posed as a result of rich countries rushing to shore up supplies for their own populations first.
Other nations — including India which has struggled to contain the world’s second-largest outbreak — have expressed similar concerns, though in reality the Pfizer vaccine is already largely spoken for by rich countries that have rushed to reserve half a billion doses, and rising. The US and UK governments say they hope to start rolling out the Pfizer vaccine before Christmas.
Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech filed for emergency authorisation for its coronavirus vaccine in the US last Friday, after data this month showed its vaccine was 95 per cent effective.
US biotechnology company Moderna has announced similarly encouraging results, with early analysis showing its vaccine was almost 95 per cent effective.
While G20 nations vowed on Sunday to “spare no effort to ensure affordable and equitable access”, Mrs Merkel’s warnings that little had actually been done to secure vaccine doses for poorer nations highlighted the gap between words and deeds.
“We will now speak with (global vaccine alliance group) GAVI about when these negotiations will begin because I am somewhat worried that nothing has been done on that yet,” she said in Berlin to the virtual summit hosted by Saudi Arabia.
There was also no conclusive response to a joint letter from the World Health Organisation, EU, Norway’s Prime Minister and the South African President urging the G20 to help plug a $US4.5bn funding shortfall in the so-called ACT-Accelerator (Access to COVID-19 Tools-Accelerator), a mechanism led by the WHO to ensure access to tests, treatments and vaccines for all.
The UN estimated in September that the ACT-Accelerator had received only $US3bn of the $US38bn needed to meet the goal of producing and delivering two billion vaccine doses, 245 million treatments and 500 million diagnostic tests over the next year.
Close to 60 million people have already been infected worldwide by the coronavirus pandemic and almost 1.4 million people have died, even as the US and Europe are facing ferocious new waves of infection.
While economies large and small have also been decimated, the World Bank has warned the poorest nations will almost certainly suffer the most and that the pandemic could push more than 100 million people into extreme poverty this year alone.
The G20 on Sunday agreed to extend a debt service suspension initiative for 73 poorer countries until June, noting in its final statement that in the face of an “uneven, highly uncertain” recovery they were “determined to continue to use all available policy tools as long as required to safeguard people’s lives, jobs and incomes”. It has already spent more than $US21bn to combat the pandemic, and injected $11 trillion to shore up the battered world economy, summit organisers said.
But there was no response to UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres’ urging for the DSSI to be prolonged until the end of 2021.
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