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The first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines distributed by the UN-backed COVAX initiative arrives at Kotoka International Airport, in Accra, Ghana, on Feb. 24, 2021.

Francis Kokoroko/The Associated Press

Ghana received the world’s first delivery of coronavirus vaccines from the United Nations-backed COVAX initiative on Wednesday – the long-awaited start for a program that has thus far fallen short of hopes that it would ensure shots were given quickly to the world’s most vulnerable people.

The arrival of 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the West African country marks the beginning of the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history, according to the World Health Organization and UNICEF. It is a linchpin of efforts to bring the pandemic to an end and has been hailed as the first time the world has delivered a highly sought-after vaccine to poor countries during an ongoing outbreak.

“Today marks the historic moment for which we have been planning and working so hard. With the first shipment of doses, we can make good on the promise of the COVAX facility to ensure people from less wealthy countries are not left behind in the race for life-saving vaccines,” said Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF, which delivered the vaccines.

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But the initiative, formed to ensure fair access to vaccines by low– and middle-income countries, has been hampered by the severely limited global supply of doses and logistical problems. Although it aims to deliver 2 billion shots this year, it currently has legally binding agreements only for several hundred million shots.

It already missed its own goal of beginning vaccinations in poor countries at the same time immunizations were rolled out in rich ones. The overall campaign thus far has been extremely uneven: 80 per cent of the 210 million doses administered worldwide thus far were given in just 10 countries, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week.

That delay led numerous poorer countries to rush to sign their own deals, potentially undermining COVAX’s efforts to get shots to the neediest people.

And some countries can’t afford to go it alone.

Ghana is among 92 countries that will receive vaccines for free through the initiative, which is led by the WHO; Gavi, a vaccine group; and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. Another 90 countries and eight territories have agreed to pay.

Ghana, a nation of 30 million people that has recorded 81,245 cases and 584 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, plans to begin vaccinations on March 2. Neighbouring Ivory Coast will be the next to receive vaccines, and also will roll them out starting next week.

Even as it celebrated receiving the first doses, Ghana noted the long road ahead.

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“The government of Ghana remains resolute at ensuring the welfare of all Ghanaians and is making frantic efforts to acquire adequate vaccines to cover the entire population through bilateral and multilateral agencies,” Ghana’s acting minister of information, Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, said in a statement.

That freneticism has been echoed across the continent of 1.3 billion people, as deliveries have fallen behind schedule and African nations have scrambled to secure vaccines from various sources. Only about seven of 54 have begun vaccination campaigns.

“If you look at which countries have managed to secure vaccines for their citizens, they are all in the developed industrialized world. And we are happy for their citizens. But we also want everyone who needs to be protected against the pandemic to get the vaccine,” UNICEF’s regional director for West and Central Africa, Marie-Pierre Poirier, told The Associated Press, calling the deliveries to Ghana a historic moment. “This is critical to put an end to the pandemic, because until everybody is safe, no one is safe.”

The target for 2021 is 1.3 billion doses in the 92 countries, and up to 2 billion taking into consideration the other countries, she said.

While 20 per cent of the most vulnerable population being vaccinated is the current goal, she said the hope is that this is significantly increased.

“I think that more actors, once they feel a little bit reassured about their own population, would for sure come and help so we can catch up,” she said.

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Some activists have also expressed serious concern about the COVAX initiative’s goal of only giving enough shots to cover about 20 per cent to 30 per cent of the population in countries that receive donated doses. They have warned that even if the program is successful in distributing those vaccines, those countries will remain vulnerable to continued coronavirus outbreaks since most experts guess that at least 70 per cent of people will need protection from the virus to reach herd immunity.

And experts have noted that even if richer countries reach some level of herd immunity, everyone will remain vulnerable as long as there are pockets of COVID-19 anywhere in the world.

“We will not end the pandemic anywhere unless we end it everywhere,” said Tedros, the WHO leader. “Today is a major first step towards realizing our shared vision of vaccine equity, but it’s just the beginning. We still have a lot of work to do with governments and manufacturers to ensure that vaccination of health workers and older people is under way in all countries within the first 100 days of this year.”

The vaccines delivered Wednesday are the first of some about 7 million doses being produced by the Serum Institute in India for some 20 countries, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Over the coming weeks, COVAX must deliver vaccines to all participating economies to ensure that those most at risk are protected, wherever they live,” said Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi. “We need governments and businesses now to recommit their support for COVAX and help us defeat this virus as quickly as possible.”

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