First COVID-19 vaccine doses dispatched by COVAX arrive in Ghana

The World Health Organization's global vaccine-sharing scheme COVAX delivered its first COVID-19 shots on Wednesday, as the race to get doses to the world's poorest people and tame the pandemic accelerates.

Flight with 600,000 doses of AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine lands in Accra

This photo released by UNICEF on Wednesday shows the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines distributed by the COVAX Facility arriving at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana. (Francis Kokoroko/UNICEF/The Associated Press)

The World Health Organization's global vaccine-sharing scheme COVAX delivered its first COVID-19 shots on Wednesday, as the race to get doses to the world's poorest people and tame the pandemic accelerates.

A flight carrying 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India landed in Ghana's capital Accra, WHO and the United Nations children's agency UNICEF said in a joint statement.

The delivery comes almost a year after WHO first described the novel coronavirus as a global pandemic and eight months after the launch of the COVAX initiative, aimed at pooling funds from wealthier countries and non-profits to develop a vaccine and distribute it equitably around the world.

The shots, part of an initial tranche of deliveries for several low- and middle-income countries, will be used by Ghana to start a vaccination drive from March 2 that will prioritize front-line health workers and others at high risk.

"The first segment of the population that will receive the 600,000 doses will be health workers, adults 60 years and over, people with underlying health conditions," Ghana's government said on Wednesday.

Some senior government officials, teachers, security personnel and essential workers in Accra and the country's second city, Kumasi, will also be vaccinated.

'Momentous occasion'

"This is a momentous occasion, as the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines into Ghana is critical in bringing the pandemic to an end," Anne-Claire Dufay of UNICEF Ghana and WHO country representative Francis Kasolo said in the statement.

"The only way out of this crisis is to ensure that vaccinations are available for all."

Vials of COVID-19 vaccine are seen before they are packed at the Serum Institute of India, in Pune, India. Serum Institute of India is the world’s largest maker of vaccines and has been contracted to manufacture a billion doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine. (Rafiq Maqbool/The Associated Press)

In a statement, International Development Minister Karina Gould said, "Canada has supported the COVAX facility from the start. It will bring countries together, regardless of their income level levels, to speed up the development, manufacture and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

"Today, we celebrate as COVAX kick-starts its delivery of the first vaccines to Ghana. This brings us one step closer to achieving coverage for all high-risk populations, including health-care workers, around the world. This is truly a milestone for us all."

Coronavirus infections have soared in Ghana to over 81,200, and 584 people have died, with nearly as many dying in the first two months of this year as in the whole of 2020, Health Ministry data showed.

"There are a lot of front-line workers who are self-isolating because they have been exposed and got infected," said Emmanuel Addipa-Adapoe, a medical officer at the Greater Accra Regional Hospital. "Receiving the vaccine will be like arming them for the task ahead."

Health minister-designate Kwaku Agyeman Manu led a delegation to receive the vaccines at the airport.

Goal to deliver 2 billion vaccine doses in 2021

The rollout in Ghana is a milestone for COVAX, which is trying to narrow a politically sensitive gap between the millions of people being vaccinated in wealthier countries and the comparatively few who have received shots in less developed parts of the world.

It plans to deliver nearly two billion vaccine doses this year, including 1.8 billion to poorer countries at no cost to their governments, and to cover up to 20 per cent of countries' populations. But it will not be sufficient for nations to reach herd immunity and effectively contain the spread of the virus.

The African Union (AU) has been trying to help its 55 member states buy more doses in a push to immunize 60 per cent of the continent's 1.3 billion people over three years. Last week, its vaccine team said 270 million doses of AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines secured for delivery this year had been taken up.

Above, the inside of the UNICEF warehouse, the world's largest humanitarian aid warehouse, in Copenhagen, Denmark. (The Associated Press)

China has donated small batches of its Sinopharm vaccine to countries including Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea. And Russia has offered to supply 300 million doses of its Sputnik V vaccine to the AU scheme along with a financing package.

But many countries are largely reliant on COVAX.

Gap in equitable distribution

On Tuesday, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged wealthy nations to share vaccine doses with COVAX, saying the goal of equitable distribution was "in jeopardy."

"Today is a major first step toward realizing our shared vision of vaccine equity, but it's just the beginning," he said on Wednesday.

He had earlier warned that so far, 210 million doses of vaccine have been administered globally but half of those are in just two countries and more than 200 countries were yet to administer a single dose.

COVAX is co-led by WHO, the GAVI vaccines alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and UNICEF.

It was launched in June 2020 to try to prevent poorer countries being pushed to the back of the queue for COVID-19 vaccines as wealthier nations bought up billions of doses for their populations.

COVAX said it had allocated the first tranche of 330 million doses of vaccines for 145 countries.

Africa's reported COVID-19 death toll surpassed 100,000 last week, a fraction of those on other continents but rising fast amid a second wave of infections.

South Africa paused its rollout of AstraZeneca's vaccine after preliminary trial data showed less efficacy against the B.1.351 coronavirus variant dominant there, but other African countries say they will use the shot.

Ghana is among six African countries that have confirmed cases of the variant.

With files from CBC News