COVID vaccines

‘Not just right but necessary’

Aurélia Nguyen is Managing Director of the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility. As its name suggests, COVAX exists to provide vaccines for as many people as possible, particularly in lower-income countries. In this interview, Aurélia Nguyen explains why equal access to vaccines is essential to overcoming the pandemic.

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Friederike Bauer

Aurélia Nguyen ist Geschäftsführende Direktorin von COVAX.
Aurélia Nguyen, Managing Director of the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility. COVAX is an initiative co-convened by the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and the World Health Organization (WHO). © Gavi/2018/Tony Noel

The COVID-19 vaccination campaign is being rolled out. How do you rate the progress made so far?
COVAX is overseeing the world’s largest and most complex  distribution of vaccines to protect the most vulnerable against COVID-19, wherever they are in the world. The COVAX Facility has already delivered over 49 million vaccine doses to 121 countries, including those eligible for vaccines through the COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC) mechanism. But this is just the start of our work. The global roll-out must continue to be stepped up if we are to end the acute phase of the pandemic and protect the world against the spread of new variants of the virus.

What exactly is COVAX doing to help achieve this?
COVAX’s goal is to finance and secure access to billions of COVID vaccine doses for self-financing participants and for 92 lower-income countries that are eligible for donor-funded vaccines. But we still need to fully fund the COVAX AMC – and to do that, we need the support of the international community and vaccine manufacturers to ensure equitable access to vaccine doses.

"The global supply of vaccine must not be hampered by vaccine nationalism, export controls, or supply shortages."

Where do you see the biggest challenges at the moment? Are they financial, logistical or national?
To fully fund the AMC, Gavi is seeking at least USD 2 billion by June. Possibly the greatest task, however, is overcoming the challenges that continue to suppress global supply. These include vaccine nationalism, export controls, vaccine diplomacy, and bottlenecks in manufacturing and supply chains. All of these barriers urgently need to be overcome.

© Jatuporn Tansirimas - stock.adobe.com
© Jatuporn Tansirimas - stock.adobe.com

How can developing countries play a greater part in the campaign?
COVAX was set up as a multilateral mechanism, and active engagement and collaboration has been its driving force since it was launched. COVAX’s governance structure is designed to give lower-income economies a say in the strategic direction of the AMC. We also make every effort to ensure that lower-income countries receive not just doses of vaccine but also technical support to enable their health systems to roll out the vaccines once they become available.

Do we need special programmes for the least developed countries? What can COVAX do to facilitate this process?
We created COVAX because we wanted to avoid a repeat of what we saw during the swine flu pandemic in 2009. In that pandemic, a few wealthy countries secured the global supply of vaccines, leaving the vast majority of countries with no access. Without COVAX, most countries have little hope of getting rapid access to enough doses of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine.

What part does the private sector have to play here?
COVAX relies on the vaccine manufacturing industry to provide access to as many doses as it needs to end the acute phase of the pandemic, at speed and at the most competitive price. Millions of doses have been delivered so far, and more suppliers are coming on-stream in the second half of the year, but it is clear we need even greater collaboration if we are to achieve vaccine equity. As for the wider private sector, the COVAX AMC investment opportunity was announced on 15 April, launching a campaign to raise at least USD 2 billion. We hope that some of this will come from private sector partners and foundations. We believe this is a realistic request: equitable distribution of vaccines offers the best prospect for ending the pandemic and kick-starting economic recovery.

How can organisations like GIZ contribute?
A multilateral mechanism such as COVAX thrives on partnership: the support of every partner is crucial to success. This undoubtedly includes continued collaboration with government partners, such as the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ),  GIZ, Germany’s foreign affairs, health and finance ministries, the Chancellery and others. This is crucial to ending the crisis. Germany has been a strong supporter of Gavi since 2006 and of COVAX from its earliest days. Germany has made a substantial commitment of nearly EUR 1 billion to COVAX. We truly value it, and it has helped us make advance purchases of vaccines and secure supply. Germany also contributes as a self-financing participant through a collective effort coordinated by the European Commission, called Team Europe.

©angellodeco - stock.adobe.com
©angellodeco - stock.adobe.com

What impact is Germany’s engagement having?
Over 70 lower-income economies have already started receiving doses of COVID-19 vaccines. This would not have been possible without Germany’s support. We are looking forward to continuing our cooperation so that everyone can receive a COVID-19 vaccine and we can safeguard routine immunisation services and systems.

"Vaccine justice is not only right but necessary in order to get the pandemic under control."

When do you think the world will be able to return to normal life?
We cannot even contemplate a return to normality until the virus is under control everywhere. If it is allowed to persist, large reservoirs of disease will continue to circulate, causing death, disruption and economic disaster. Global equitable access to a vaccine, particularly to protect healthcare workers and those most at risk, wherever they are and whatever their income level, is the only way to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this unprecedented pandemic, equity is not just the right thing to do – it is simply the necessary thing to do.

You were appointed Managing Director of COVAX last October. How would you describe the last few months?
I see my responsibility as a huge privilege and one that I proudly share with an outstanding team of professionals across Gavi and COVAX who are working tirelessly for the cause of vaccine equity. We are all deeply conscious that no one is safe until everyone is safe, and that is the biggest driver imaginable.

May 2021