WHO says Pfizer deal could allow poor countries to start vaccinating in February


FILE PHOTO: A woman holds a small bottle labeled with a "Coronavirus COVID-19 Vaccine" sticker and a medical syringe in front of the displayed Pfizer logo in this illustration taken, October 30, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization said on Friday it had reached an agreement with Pfizer/BioNTech for 40 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine and should be able to start delivering vaccines to poor and lower-middle income countries next month under its COVAX programme.

The COVAX scheme, led by the WHO and the GAVI vaccine alliance, signed deals for hundreds of millions of doses to vaccinate people in poor and lower-middle income countries, but vaccinations have yet to start. Pfizer's vaccine is so far the only one that has WHO emergency approval.

"In this world we are as protected as our neighbour," said Pfizer's CEO Albert Bourla, officially announcing the deal which Reuters reported on Thursday.

Bourla said the 40 million doses, a fraction of the company's total 2021 production estimate of 2 billion, would be sold on a non-profit basis. He described it as an initial agreement, and said more doses could be provided through the COVAX programme in future.

The deal comes amid growing criticism of vaccine inequity from both the WHO and others as wealthy countries inoculate millions of people using shots procured through bilateral deals.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the new agreement with Pfizer should allow vaccinations to begin in February for health workers, although details of supply arrangements are still being finalised.

He said he hoped the agreement would also encourage other countries to donate more of their Pfizer shots to support rapid roll-out, like Norway has.

"The commitment of the (United States) to join COVAX, together with this new agreement with Pfizer/BioNTech, mean that we are closer to fulfilling the promise of COVAX," he said.

U.S. President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci said on Thursday the United States intended to join the facility. Biden's predecessor Donald Trump had halted funding to the Geneva-based body and announced a withdrawal process.

The WHO said earlier this week it planned to deliver 135 million vaccines in the first quarter of 2021, without giving a breakdown by supplier.

GAVI's CEO Seth Berkley said in the same briefing that countries would receive dose estimates for the early part of this year in about a week's time.

(Reporting by Matthias Blamont, Emma Farge and Peter Graff; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Louise Heavens and Sonya Hepinstall)

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