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Explained: What is COVAX, the scheme to distribute COVID-19 vaccines around the world?

Under the COVAX program, over 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines are expected to be delivered by the end of 2021. 

Ghana has become the first country in the world to receive a shipment of coronavirus vaccines under the COVAX program. About 600,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII) in Pune (the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world), were sent to Accra in Ghana on February 23.

The AstraZeneca vaccine (known as Covishield in India) was given Emergency Use Listing (EUL) by the WHO this month. AstraZeneca and SII will together work with the COVAX facility to begin supplying the vaccine globally.

Under the COVAX program, over 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines are expected to be delivered by the end of 2021.

So what is COVAX?

The COVAX program is led by the vaccine alliance GAVI, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) in partnership with UNICEF, vaccine manufacturers and the World Bank, among others. The aim is to ensure equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally in what is being called the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history.

The program wants to vaccinate roughly 20 per cent of the population in the 92 Advance Market Commitment (AMC) countries, which include middle and lower-income nations that cannot afford to pay for COVID-19 vaccines. This means countries with a Gross National Income (GNI) per capita of less than US $4000 and some other countries which are eligible under the World Bank International Development Association (IDA).

As vaccines receive approval, they will be bought by the COVAX facility, which will then try to provide the doses for an average of 20 per cent of each of the eligible country’s population free of cost. Out of its target of 2 billion vaccine doses, 1.3 billion doses will be delivered to the AMC countries.

The funding target for this program for 2021 is about US $6.8 billion, of which it has raised about US $4 billion. The funding is partly coming from high and middle-income countries that will also receive a share of the vaccines produced for COVAX. The US has pledged to give US $2 billion to COVAX and make available further funding of US $2 billion over the course of the next two years.

In 2021, the programme expects to vaccinate nearly 550 million, the equivalent of roughly 8.52 per cent of India’s population.

An editorial published in the journal Nature in January said that COVAX is key to vaccinating the world’s poorest people and ending the pandemic.

Which vaccines are included?

Oxford-AstraZeneca became the first vaccine manufacturer to sign up under the programme in June 2020, and has guaranteed to supply 300 million doses. In January, COVAX announced that it had signed an agreement with Pfizer-BioNTech to purchase up to 40 million doses of their vaccine. In addition, the program has a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Johnson and Johnson for 500 million doses of their single-dose vaccine, which the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared to be safe and effective recently. COVAX also has existing agreements with SII for 200 million doses.

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