'This is grotesque': WHO chief condemns countries like UK over 'self-defeating' vaccine rollout

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Rebecca Speare-Cole
·3 min read
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Watch: Growing global vaccine gap 'grotesque'

The head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has launched an extraordinary attack on vaccine rollouts in wealthier countries, branding the race to protect their entire population at the expense of those in poorer countries "grotesque”.

Speaking at a press conference on Monday, WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was “shocking” how little rich countries have done to avert a “catastrophic moral failure” that he previously warned of in January.

It comes as richer countries have been buying up huge vaccination supplies through bilateral deals with manufacturers and are racing to vaccinate their entire populations.

The UK has so far administered the first jab to nearly 28 million adults out of a population of around 66 million.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) speaks after Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases during the 148th session of the Executive Board on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Geneva, Switzerland, January 21, 2021.  Christopher Black/WHO/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization. (Reuters)

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Meanwhile, countries like Timor, Sierra Leone and Yemen have not been able to vaccinate anyone — not even healthcare workers or vulnerable people, according to Our World in Data.

Tedros said: “We have the means to avert this failure but it’s shocking how little has been done to avert it.”

“The gap between the number of vaccines administered in rich countries and the number of vaccines administered through COVAX is growing every single day and becoming more grotesque every day.

“Countries that are now vaccinating younger, healthy people at low risk of disease are doing so at the cost of the lives of health workers, older people and other at-risk groups in other countries.

Watch: WHO chief calls vaccine nationalism a "catastrophic moral failure"

“The world’s poorest countries wonder whether rich countries really mean what they say when they talk about solidarity.”

Tedros also said that the inequitable distribution of vaccines is not just “a moral outrage” but it’s also “economically and epidemiologically self-defeating”.

He said vaccinating entire populations “may buy short-term security” but unless poorer countries get their share, it is “a false sense of security”.

This is because the emergence of new variants makes it more likely the virus will mutate into strains that can evade vaccines, he said.

“As long as the virus continues to circulate everywhere — anywhere — people will continue to die," he said. “Trade and travel will continue to be disrupted and the economic recovery will be further delayed.”

The WHO chief also called for countries to work to suppress transmission everywhere at the same time.

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He said: “If countries won’t share vaccines for the right reasons, we appeal to do them to do it out of self-interest.”

Tedros also said that South Korea was a great example of a high-income country that can easily afford to buy vaccines through bilateral deals but has waited its turn through COVAX.

The UK has so far administered the first vaccine to most people over the age of 60 as well as healthcare workers and vulnerable groups.

Now, people over the age of 50 are getting their first vaccines in the country while frontline workers and vulnerable people in poor countries go without.

Watch: WHO chief praises Indian PM Modi for support on vaccine equitability