A coalition of 156 nations, including Bangladesh, has joined a global scheme for fair distribution of future vaccines against Covid-19, an alliance led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced, but superpowers China and the United States did not sign up.
Unveiling the agreement at a briefing in Geneva on Monday, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Covax represented the "world's largest and most diverse portfolio of Covid vaccines" in which the priority would be given to those most at risk.
Khalilur Rahman, additional secretary of the foreign ministry, confirmed that Bangladesh is one of the countries that joined the global scheme.
Set up to counter the increasing threat of so-called "vaccine nationalism" in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, the scheme called Covax is being led by the WHO, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovations (Cepi) to ensure the "equitable access and allocation of Covid-19 health products", not least vaccines.
The scheme would account for about two-thirds of the world population, according to the alliance, which published the list of signatories on Monday after a deadline for binding commitments expired on Friday.
Recognising that the first useful vaccines to emerge may be in short supply, the alliance said approved vaccines will initially be made available to a tightly targeted 3 percent of the population of participating countries, building over time to 20 percent of each country's most vulnerable population.
Ultimately the scheme aims to deliver 2bn doses of safe, effective vaccines around the world by the end of 2021.
Sixty-four higher income economies have already joined Covax, which includes commitments from 35 economies as well as the European commission, which will procure doses on behalf of the 27 EU member states plus Norway and Iceland, with 38 more expected to join in the coming days.
Asked to elaborate on nations' delay in joining the vaccine plan, WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris yesterday said some were due to paperwork and the need for parliamentary approval.
She declined to comment on specific countries and said discussions were ongoing.
Other countries, however, appear to have no intention of signing up. A Russian government source told Reuters there was no need for his country to take part in the programme since it was developing and producing its own vaccine.
US President Donald Trump's government has already secured future supplies through bilateral deals, prompting accusations of selfish behaviour to the detriment of poor countries.
China, where the coronavirus began, was also missing on the list of 64 rich nations. But alliance officials said dialogue continued with Beijing.
More than 150 potential vaccines are being developed and tested globally, with 38 in human trials. Covid-19 has infected more than 31 million people globally and killed nearly 1 million so far.
With some wealthier nations reticent over Covax, the plan has highlighted the challenge of distributing vaccines equitably around a world of haves and have-nots.
The WHO has said some $38 billion is needed for its overall ACT-Accelerator programme, which includes Covax, but also global collaboration towards developing and ensuring equitable access to tests and treatments for Covid-19, and strengthening health systems.
But so far it has received just $3.0 billion of that.
Particularly, Covax has received commitments for $1.4 billion towards vaccine research and development, but a further $700 million-$800 million was urgently needed, the alliance said.
The alliance did not say which countries were providing funding while not planning to take supply of vaccines from the scheme. France and Germany have said they will only source potential shots via the European joint procurement scheme.
However, WHO chief voiced optimism that so many countries had agreed to participate in the mechanism.
"Covid-19 is an unprecedented global crisis that demands an unprecedented global response," he said in a statement, warning countries against scrambling to acquire vaccine stocks for their populations alone.
He said that the scheme would ensure vaccines for "some people in all countries and not all people in some countries".
"Vaccine nationalism will only perpetuate the disease and prolong the global recovery," he added.
"This is not charity," he told journalists. "It's in every country's best interest. We sink or we swim together."
Gavi welcomed that Covax was "now in business".
Dr Richard Hatchett, CEO of Cepi, said: "This is a landmark moment in the history of public health with the international community coming together to tackle this pandemic."