Dr Soumya Swaminathan WHO chief scientist (Reuters photoDr Soumya Swaminathan WHO chief scientist (Reuters photoIndia, Dr Swaminathan said, is also developing several vaccines with most under clinical trials, followed by Europe and North America.  (Reuters/File photo)

The World Health Organisation (WHO)’s chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan is upset that despite well thought through and planned-in-advance initiatives like COVAX to address any likely inequity in access to vaccines globally, today there is gross inequity of distribution and access to vaccines around the world. COVAX is an initiative, put in place last year, is led jointly by WHO, GAVI and CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations).

Since we were able to predict this, she said, “the idea of COVAX was to have a global mechanism for fair and equitable distribution of vaccines and even supplying them free to those countries that could not afford. This has not completely succeeded till today because the supplies into COVAX just did not materialise and a large part of that was to come from India.”

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Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organisation was speaking at a webinar organised by NIIT University on Saturday, June 12th evening. She was also interacting with NIIT University chancellor Dr K Kasturirangan, India’s space scientist and one who led the panel of experts that drafted India’s National Education Policy, Rajendra Singh Pawar, founder of NIIT University, other experts and students.

Dr Swaminathan said, “we should have by now distributed 300 million doses but are today somewhere around 85 million and we are hoping in the second half of the year, we will still be able to reach our goal of 2 billion doses by end of 2021.” She says, right now the focus is on getting countries to share the excess doses that they have and G7 may be making some announcements today and the US has already announced its plans to donate vaccines through COVAX. India, she said, also needs to step up as much as possible and also as quickly as possible to ensure more vaccine coverage. This, she felt, is all the more important because one other factor that is playing the role with some variants becoming little more capable of evading the immunity, therefore it is important to ensure that people get both their vaccine doses.  (In terms of supplies of vaccines from India under the COVAX initiative, of the 300 million doses sought so far from Serum Institute -equally divided between the AstraZenaca and Novovax vaccines – but of this so far Serum has been able to supply only 35 million so far before export curbs were put in place).

On the key reason, she said,  “it is mainly because the vaccine manufacturing countries are the regions of the world that have got the bulk of the vaccines – China, United States and India. China is way ahead with over 800 million doses of vaccine administered already and eight vaccines being developed (as readers would know the figure for India as on Saturday, June 12th is 250 million doses, Serum Institute alone has supplied an equal amount so far with bulk of it close to 200 million to the Centre and the rest between states and the private sector hospitals) apart from the  55 million doses it has exported thus far (including for COVAX and for exports to other countries till export restrictions were imposed).

India, Dr Swaminathan said, is also developing several vaccines with most under clinical trials, followed by Europe and North America.

The inequity in vaccine supply has also reflected in the way the road to recovery is emerging. Things in Europe and north America, Dr Swaminathan said, were getting back to normal with between 40 to 60 per cent of population receiving at least one dose of the vaccine and about 30 per cent getting two doses already. This is allowing people to open up the economy and people are already planning to travel.

By contrast, she said, in Africa, less than 1 per cent of people have got the vaccine with even healthcare and frontline workers not yet getting the vaccines. Hence, she points to World Health Organisation’s concern over the gross inequity on vaccine distribution and access. “While 2.2 billion doses of the vaccines have been administered worldwide only about 55 million have been administered in the whole of Africa for its 1.3 billion population.”It was called Covid and You. Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organisation speaking at a webinar organised by NIIT University , which has as its chancellor Dr K Kasturirangan, India’s space scientist and one who led the panel of experts that drafted India’s National Education Policy.

Referring to the pandemic as a bolt from the blue for many nations with all earlier parameters to judge preparedness going for a toss, she said, one of the lessons was that many of the metrics that had been used earlier to assess and rank preparedness all proved worthless with some nations that were ranked among the highest ending up suffering the highest deaths per capita.

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