* COVAX vaccine roll-out due to begin next month
* Norway said this week it will donate shots
* Urges other rich countries to “step up”
By Emma Farge
GENEVA, Jan 22 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to join the COVAX vaccine facility could make a “huge difference” to the financing of the scheme, intended to deliver coronavirus vaccines to poor countries, a diplomat with a lead role in COVAX said on Friday.
But Dag Inge Ulstein, Norway’s minister of international development who is co-lead of the COVAX Facilitation Council with South Africa, said other wealthy countries must step up too and urged them to donate more shots.
The roll-out of the COVAX scheme, led by the World Health Organization and GAVI vaccine alliance, is due to start next month with 1.8 billion doses due to go to poorer countries in 2021.
Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, said on Thursday the United States intended to join the facility under the new president.
“It will make a huge difference (to the financing) but it’s not only up to the United States,” Ulstein told Reuters. “In the end, the most wealthy countries need to step up and fill that gap.”
Fauci also said the United States will remain a member of the WHO. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, had halted funding to the WHO, where the United States is the largest donor, and announced a process to withdraw from the agency in July 2021.
A meeting led by South Africa and Norway’s finance ministers to push governments to contribute more to COVAX is planned for Jan. 29, Ulstein said, adding that the money should not come from existing, stretched aid budgets.
WHO officials have appealed for help filling a multi-billion dollar funding gap for COVID tests, drugs and vaccines, which and Ulstein confirmed on Friday was $27 billion for 2021.
The COVAX Facilitation Council seeks to mobilise additional resources and political support for COVAX including from rich nations in the Group of 20.
Pressure has been mounting for wealthy countries to donate vaccines following growing criticism of emerging inequity, with the WHO chief warning of a “catastrophic moral failure”.
Norway this week became one of the first countries to tell the WHO it would donate vaccines such as those it currently has from U.S. drugmaker Pfizer to COVAX in parallel to administering doses at home and urged others to do the same.
“What is at risk is if this circulates longer and we have new mutations it might take away the effect of the vaccines we already rolled out in our own countries,” Ulstein said.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was due to be added to the COVAX scheme on Friday but allotment is expected to be relatively small.
Since it is the only vaccine that currently has WHO emergency-use listing, a COVAX requirement, donations of that shot in particular could spur deliveries to poorer countries. (Reporting by Emma Farge; editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Timothy Heritage)
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