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In this May 25, 2020, file photo, a lab technician extracts a portion of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate during testing at the Chula Vaccine Research Center, in Bangkok, Thailand.Sakchai Lalit/The Associated Press

The World Health Organization (WHO) is working to ensure vulnerable Latin American nations receive a “subsidized” vaccine at an “affordable” price once it is available, WHO’s regional director for the Americas, Carissa Etienne, said on Tuesday.

The Latin America region has become the latest pandemic epicentre, with coronavirus deaths in the region on Monday surpassing the North American death toll for the first time since the start of the outbreak.

Many Latin American nations are poor, with health care systems struggling to cope with the region’s 3.4 million confirmed cases and 146,000 deaths according to Reuters data.

In a virtual briefing, Etienne said Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), WHO’s regional office based in Washington, was to working to “ensure the most vulnerable countries in the region receive the COVID-19 vaccine on a subsidized basis and at an affordable price.”

The global race for a coronavirus vaccine and treatments has turned into a battle between the world’s wealthiest nations, with rich countries buying up limited drug stocks or procuring future supplies of the most promising potential vaccines.

While the vaccine may be some way off, Latin American nations with small budgets will struggle to compete, experts said.

“What good is a vaccine if people don’t have access to it?” Etienne said.

PAHO has a co-operation mechanism called the “Revolving Fund” through which vaccines, syringes and related supplies are purchased on behalf of its member states, regardless of size or economic conditions.

Etienne said her organization is “actively” negotiating with the Global Access Fund for COVID-19 Vaccines, known as COVAX, to “achieve the best possible conditions for the countries of the region.”

She urged those nations to join the clinical trials to “speed up vaccine creation.”

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