Push to bring coronavirus vaccines to the poor faces trouble

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FILE - In this July 30, 2020 file photo, Kai Hu, a research associate transfers medium to cells, in the laboratory at Imperial College in London. Imperial College is working on the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. Refrigeration, cargo planes, and, above all, money: All risk being in short supply for the international initiative to get coronavirus vaccines to the worlds most vulnerable people. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

LONDON – An ambitious humanitarian project to deliver coronavirus vaccines to the world's poorest people is facing potential shortages of money, cargo planes, refrigeration and vaccines themselves — and is running into skepticism even from some of those it's intended to help most.

In one of the biggest obstacles, rich countries have locked up most of the world’s potential vaccine supply through 2021, and the U.S. and others have refused to join the project, called Covax.

“The supply of vaccines is not going to be there in the near term, and the money also isn’t there,” warned Rohit Malpani, a public health consultant who previously worked for Doctors Without Borders.

Covax was conceived as a way of giving countries access to coronavirus vaccines regardless of their wealth.

It is being led by the World Health Organization, a U.N. agency; Gavi, a public-private alliance, funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that buys immunizations for 60% of the world’s children; and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, another Gates-supported public-private collaboration.

Covax’s aim is to buy 2 billion doses by the end of 2021, though it isn't yet clear whether the successful vaccine will require one dose or two for the world's 7.8 billion people. Countries taking part in the project can either buy vaccines from Covax or get them for free, if needed.

One early problem that has emerged: Some of the world's wealthiest nations have negotiated their own deals directly with drug companies, meaning they don't need to participate in the endeavor at all. China, Russia and the U.S. have said they do not intend to join. Other countries, including France and Germany, will technically join Covax but won't procure vaccines for their citizens via the initiative.

Not only that, but firm agreements with Covax came in too late to prevent more than half of all potential doses being snapped up by countries representing 13% of the world’s population, according to an Oxfam study.