France commits to donating 500,000 vaccine doses to COVAX

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French President Emmanuel Macron holds a vial of a COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by: Christophe Ena / Pool via Reuters

France is now the first country to share coronavirus vaccine doses with COVAX — the global vaccine procurement mechanism that aims to deliver up to 1.8 billion doses to select low- and middle-income countries in 2021 — which has faced challenges in securing supply.

French President Emmanuel Macron made the announcement Friday, committing 500,000 doses to the initiative for free. An initial batch of 105,500 doses of the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca will be made available this month, and the first shipment will go to Mauritania.

According to a news release, the “pilot shipment of AstraZeneca vaccine is part of a commitment of 500,000 doses from multiple manufacturers planned by mid-June, with a goal to provide at least 5% of all doses acquired by France to COVAX over the course of 2021.”

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Other countries are expected to soon follow, with commitments coming from the leaders of New Zealand and Spain.

The move comes after persistent calls by the World Health Organization and other partners, including those from civil society, for high-income countries to share their excess doses with COVAX. While the initiative has shipped over 45 million doses to about 120 countries as of April 26, this covers less than 1% of their populations combined.

Only 0.3% of vaccine doses administered globally have been in low-income countries, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week during an informal session with civil society organizations, ahead of the 74th World Health Assembly.

Tedros is among the global health leaders and high-profile individuals who have decried the significant discrepancy in vaccine distribution between high-income and lower-income countries. A day before France’s announcement, Tedros penned an op-ed in The New York Times arguing that while the world’s biggest economies have supported COVAX “politically and financially,” they have also “undermined” the initiative by hoarding supplies, with some ordering more than enough for their people.

France’s donation also comes amid constraints in the supply of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines. With COVID-19 cases surging in India, the country recently suspended exports of Oxford-AstraZeneca doses manufactured by the Serum Institute of India in a bid to accelerate its domestic vaccinations.

Gian Gandhi, COVAX supply coordinator at UNICEF, said last week that the initiative expects to deliver more doses to countries in June as AstraZeneca’s “additional supply nodes” scale up production. But it’s unclear when shipments will start to materialize again from the Serum Institute of India.

In December, COVAX opened up the possibility of donors contributing doses with the release of its “principles for sharing COVID-19 vaccine doses.” The principles, however, say doses should be unearmarked “to facilitate equitable access.”

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