Some 172 countries are engaging with the COVAX facility to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Monday, adding that more funding is needed and countries now need to make binding commitments.
Countries wishing to be part of the global COVAX plan have until Aug. 31 to submit expressions of interest, WHO officials said, with confirmation of their intention to join due by Sept. 18, and initial payments due by Oct. 9.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the facility was critical to ending the COVID-19 pandemic and would not only pool risk for countries developing and buying vaccines but also ensure prices are kept "as low as possible."
"Vaccine nationalism only helps the virus," he told a media briefing. "The success of the COVAX facility hinges not only on countries signing up to it but also filling key funding gaps."
COVAX is co-led by the GAVI vaccines alliance, the WHO and the CEPI Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and is designed to guarantee equitable access globally to COVID-19 vaccines once they are developed and authorized for use.
It currently covers nine candidate COVID-19 vaccines with the aim of securing supplies of and delivering 2 billion doses across countries that sign up by the end of 2021.
"Initially, when there is a limited supply (of COVID-19 vaccines), it will be important to provide the vaccine to those at highest risk around the globe," Tedros said.
He said this included health workers on the front lines of the pandemic, who were "critical to saving lives and stabilizing the overall health system."
WHO's chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan urged that using plasma from the recovered to treat COVID-19 is still considered an "experimental” therapy and that the preliminary results showing it may work are still "inconclusive.”
The comments came after U.S. President Donald Trump Sunday approved an emergency authorization of convalescent plasma for COVID-19 patients as a treatment against the disease that has killed over 176,000 in the country.
According to Swaminathan, convalescent plasma therapy has been used in the last century to treat numerous infectious diseases, with varying levels of success. Swaminathan said the WHO still considers convalescent plasma therapy to be experimental and said it should continue to be evaluated.
She added that the treatment is difficult to standardize since people produce different levels of antibodies and the plasma must be collected individually from recovered patients.
Swaminathan pointed out that the studies had been small and provided "low-quality evidence.” She said countries can "do an emergency listing if they feel the benefits outweigh the risks” but that that's "usually done when you’re waiting for the more definitive evidence.”
Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to WHO's director-general, said that convalescent plasma therapy can come with numerous side effects, from a mild fever and chills to more severe lung-related injuries.