The World Health Organization (WHO) says it has teamed up with the European Union to launch a €40 million programme to help deploy COVID-19 vaccines in six former Soviet republics.
It aims to help Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova.
The funding will complement the WHO-backed COVAX Facility, said Dr Hans Kluge, WHO's regional director for Europe.
COVAX - set up by WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance - aims to ensure low-income countries are not priced out in the race to secure COVID-19 vaccines.
The €40 million initiative announced on Thursday will initially go towards getting the countries' health system ready to roll out the vaccination campaign, with an emphasis on planning, equipment, training o health workers and information campaigns.
"Successful vaccination requires much more than vaccine development and dissemination," Dr Kluge said in a statement.
He also told reporters from WHO Europe headquarters in Copenhagen that “vaccines offer a way to emerge faster from this pandemic. But only if we ensure that all countries, irrespective of income level, have access to them".
“Unfair access to vaccines can backfire. The longer the virus lingers, the greater the risk of dangerous mutations,” he added.
Oliver Varhelyi, EU Commissioner responsible for European neighbourhood policy and enlargement negotiations, said that "acting together now will also allow us to work rapidly on the region's sustainable socio-economic recovery."
"Today's programme comes in addition to the €1 billion of EU assistance mobilised so far to address the health pandemic and support the longer-term socio-economic recovery of the region," he added.
Kluge also relayed the “good news” that the number of new confirmed infections in the 53-country WHO Europe region has declined for four straight weeks and virus-related deaths have fallen in each of the last two weeks. He also pointed to falling hospitalisation rates.
In the region, some 7.8 million people have completed immunizations against the coronavirus, Kluge said. He added that the number of vaccine doses administered has outstripped the number of reported COVID-19 cases, with some 41 million doses given compared to the 36 million cases reported in the region during the pandemic.
After a review of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which is to become a key part of the UN-backed rollout of vaccines to poorer countries, a WHO expert group said Wednesday that recommended dosage is two doses administered over an interval of 8 to 12 weeks.
The EU and WHO have already pledged joint €35 million to support the six former Soviet states in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic and strengthen capacities to prevent, prepare and respond to future public health emergencies. This has included the delivery PPE, lab kits, ventilators and PCR tests.