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'Catastrophic moral failure': WHO chief slams COVID vaccine rollout

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A member of staff at the university hospital prepares the Moderna vaccine against COVID-19 in Duesseldorf, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021.
A member of staff at the university hospital prepares the Moderna vaccine against COVID-19 in Duesseldorf, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021.   -   Copyright  Federico Gambarini/dpa via AP
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Rich countries securing millions of doses of COVID vaccines has put the world "on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure," the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the WHO executive board that whereas more than 39 million doses of vaccine have been administered in "at least 49 higher-income countries" only 25 doses have been given in "one lowest-income country".

"Not 25 million; not 25 thousand; just 25," he specified, not saying which country he was speaking about.

"I need to be blunt: the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries," the WHO director-general said.

Although governments should prioritise vaccinating health workers and older people, Dr Tedros explained, "it’s not right that younger, healthier adults in rich countries are vaccinated before health workers and older people in poorer countries".

He said the world needed to avoid the mistakes made in the HIV and H1N1 pandemics, stating that some countries and companies have prioritised "bilateral deals" that drive up prices.

Dr Tedros said pharmaceutical companies had prioritised approval in rich countries rather than submitting the dossier to the WHO.

The WHO's COVAX programme, which was developed to help distribute vaccines to poorer countries, secured two billion doses from five producers, the director-general said. They aim to start deliveries in February.

COVAX is one pillar of a WHO programme launched in part with the European Commission and France to respond to the pandemic.

His stark warning comes as Pfizer warned of delays in vaccine distribution in Europe over the next two months as manufacturers race to produce billions of doses of approved vaccines.

The director-general said nonetheless that the development of COVID vaccines just a year into the pandemic that has killed two million people globally was a "stunning scientific achievement" and a "source of hope" for the future.