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Rutgers professor discusses COVAX initiative, US involvement

Richard Marlink, the director of the Rutgers Global Health Institute, said the U.S. and other wealthy countries must donate coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines to COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) for the program to make a significant impact. – Photo by Richardmarlink.com

With the Biden Administration, the U.S. has committed to an international collaboration called COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) to distribute coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines more equitably worldwide, reversing the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO), according to The Washington Post.

Richard Marlink, director of the Rutgers Global Health Institute, discussed the significance of this development and the impact COVAX will have on ending the COVID-19 pandemic and improving global health.

As of yesterday, approximately 304 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered across 114 countries, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker. Marlink said there are stark disparities in how these countries are distributing vaccines, depending on their socioeconomic status.

“Some countries, like Israel and (the) United Arab Emirates, are quickly immunizing their citizens,” he said. “The overwhelming majority, though, either have vaccinated only small percentages of their populations or have not begun at all.”

This is where the COVAX initiative comes in, Marlink said. It was created to support the research, development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, which the initiative plans to make equally accessible to all participating countries, he said.

Ghana became the first country on Feb. 24 to receive a shipment of vaccines from COVAX, and more than 190 countries are participating in the initiative, according to The Washington Post.

With the currently limited vaccine supply and the demand for more manufacturing and distribution, Marlink said wealthier nations have been making individual agreements with vaccine manufacturers. He said these nations’ prioritization of securing enough vaccines for their own citizens leaves poorer countries vulnerable.

“Given current trends, most middle-income countries, including China and India, will be vaccinating into 2022,” Marlink said. “In poorer countries, broad vaccination coverage will not happen before 2023, and it may never happen. This is a tragedy we can avoid and must avoid.”

He said participation in COVAX is in the best interests of the U.S. and other wealthy countries due to the potential for virus variants to arise in countries where fewer people have received vaccines. The virus will continue mutating into potentially more infectious or deadly variants as it infects people, placing everyone, including the U.S. population, at risk, Marlink said.

He said the main obstacles for COVAX are lack of funding, as well as a limited supply of vaccines due to the wealthy countries involved with the initiative having already claimed them.

President Joseph R. Biden Jr. pledged $4 million on Feb. 19 to the initiative, but the U.S. and other wealthy countries have opposed calls to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, according to The Washington Post.

In order for the program to have a significant impact, Marlink said the U.S. and other countries need to not just fund COVAX but also donate their excess vaccine supply to the program.

“You can have all the money in the world, but if there is no supply, that money helps very little,” he said. “The U.S. has bought the needed vaccine doses to vaccinate the entire country several times over.”

Marlink said the U.S. rejoining the WHO and participating in COVAX is significant because it sends the message that the U.S. wants to collaborate with other nations to solve global health issues in the present, with the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the future. The U.S. also gives significant financial and leadership support to the WHO, he said.

“By joining the COVAX effort, the U.S. is strengthening efforts to distribute vaccines in countries that otherwise have no or very limited access,” Marlink said. “But, we must fully engage and help make COVAX a success.”


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