COVAX Was a Great Idea, But Is Now 500 Million Doses Short of Its Vaccine Distribution Goals. What Exactly Went Wrong?

Hatchett, who served in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, oversaw the U.S. vaccine donations to other countries during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. As COVID-19 began to spread in early 2020, he didn’t know if vaccines would prove necessary. But he knew from experience that, if they did, wealthy countries would likely buy out and hoard whatever limited supply of doses came together—unless “aggressive action,” as he describes it, was taken to stop them.

In March 2020, as the COVID-19 virus continued to spread across the planet, Hatchett wrote a white paper laying the groundwork for a solution: a global initiative to support the development of COVID-19 vaccines through advance agreements with numerous pharmaceutical companies and to distribute shots to countries around the world, whether or not those nations could pay for them. Those ideas ultimately helped inform COVAX, the global vaccine distribution project co-led by CEPI, Gavi, and the World Health Organization (WHO), with logistical support from UNICEF.


“It was a breathtakingly important initiative,” says Lawrence Gostin, a WHO adviser and a professor of global health law at Georgetown University. “The first of its kind ever in the world.” But it was far from perfect. The issues that Hatchett feared—vaccine nationalism, self-interest, unequal access to limited supply—soon scarred COVAX’s idealistic facade. While COVAX struggled to secure funding, wealthy countries struck out independently, signing unilateral deals with vaccine makers and buying up limited supply. And as wealthy countries rocketed ahead, COVAX’s pledge to distribute vaccines in poor countries while they rolled out in rich countries faltered.

As of Sept. 8, COVAX had distributed more than 240 million vaccine doses in 139 countries. That sounds like a lot—and it is, relative to any other public-health crisis in history—but it will almost certainly leave COVAX well short of its goal of distributing 2 billion doses by the end of 2021. The group said that the initiative now expects to have access to 1.4 billion doses by the end of 2021 and to hit 2 billion in the first quarter of 2022.

COVAX is blaming the shoulders of the world’s wealthiest countries, some of which have purchased more than enough vaccines for their populations. Indeed, in the U.S., about half the population is now fully vaccinated. In other wealthy countries, like the U.K., an even larger share of citizens have gotten their shots. While many rich countries have begun to donate unneeded doses to COVAX, “The global picture of access to COVID-19 vaccines,” COVAX representatives said in the statement, “is unacceptable.”

By contrast, experts have estimated it could take until 2023 for many lower-income countries to vaccinate most of their populations, even with COVAX’s assistance. Meanwhile, people are dying, economies are struggling, and the virus continues to mutate. “As an ideal, [COVAX was] an A+,” Gostin says. “In its implementation, a C.” Flawed though it may be, COVAX represents a step toward international health equity—and improving its implementation could be lifesaving during this pandemic and the next one.

The plan to ensure no country was left behind

COVAX’s funding model is complex, but the basic plan went like this: Wealthy countries would purchaseMeanwhile, another arm of COVAX would collect donations from nonprofits, businesses, and governments to support the contribution of billions of doses too low- and middle-income nations.  at least some of their vaccines through the COVAX facility, even if they signed their deals. With that group purchasing power, COVAX would negotiate cost-effective deals with various vats, businesses, and governments to support the contribution of billions of doses to low- and middle-income nations.

This model enabled COVAX to spread its bets by backing numerous vaccine makers; that way, plans would be in place with whichever companies ultimately succeeded in developing an effective vaccine. It wouldn’t matter as much if some failed. The group’s donation arm was meant to guarantee that poorer countries would get access to vaccines simultaneously as richer ones. COVAX’s initial goal was to provide enough vaccines to protect some 20% of each country’s population before any participating country got more than that.

COVAX officials always knew wealthy countries would make some deals with vaccine makers independently, Gavi’s Berkley says. But the group’s goal was to streamline the process enough to avoid a total free-for-all. “Let’s just say there’s no COVAX,” Berkley says. “You have 204 countries all competitively going after the same manufacturers, trying to do deals, undercutting each other.” Centralizing a significant chunk of that activity, COVAX’s leaders hoped, would prevent lower-income countries from getting left behind. But some wealthy countries, most notably the U.S. and China, initially opted out of COVAX entirely.

Meanwhile, COVAX was struggling to sign major deals. As a brand-new organization, it had no funding in the bank. And many countries—even those that pledged to be part of the initiative—were slow to turn promises into actual financial contributions. It didn’t help that wealthy countries weren’t only depriving COVAX of much-needed funding by relying on their side deals and buying up large chunks of the vaccine supply before policipoliciess were even available.

After the Biden Administration took over from Donald Trump in early 2021, it shifted polices, pledging $4 billion to COVAX over two years. (China eventually pledged to buy enough shots through COVAX to vaccinate 1% of its population.) But by then, the damage was done. As soon as highly effective vaccines were authorized in late 2020, manufacturers began shipping much of their supply directly to the U.S. and other rich countries.

Some experts say it was naive for COVAX’s leaders even to pretend that rich countries would whole-heartedly buy into a system that aimed to vaccinate the rest of the world at the same rate. “Do you think [20% vaccinated by the end of 2021] would be considered a success for the U.S.? No,” says Mark Eccleston-Turner, a medical law and ethics expert at Keele University in the U.K. “Having such a low target perpetuated this injustice.”

Why COVAX had to play catch-up

In the summer of 2020, WHO’s ethics committee members met with leaders from COVAX to discuss its population-based allocation plan. Immediately, says someone who attended the meeting (and asked to remain anonymous so they could openly discuss it without fear of reprisal), the WHO’s ethics committee members expressed concerns. Why were all countries set to receive the same proportional number of vaccines when needs varied drastically? (A WHO spokesperson said the discussions were confidential and did not confirm or deny that account.)

Some experts—both part of and independent of the WHO ethics committee—say it would have been more sensible to distribute vaccines based on the severity of COVID-19 outbreaks in various countries rather than by a fixed measure of population. “You want to put the hose on the fire,” Gostin says. He argues that COVAX could make the biggest impact by bringing vaccines to countries with the largest death and disease rather than distributing shots uniformly.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that an in-need country will be able to use the doses it is given. Many poor countries that have received doses from COVAX have already wasted large amounts of vaccines because they lack the cold storage and health infrastructure needed to distribute them. But more importantly, argues CEPI’s Hatchett, the needs of a country at any given moment are not enough to establish an ethical distribution of vaccines since it’s impossible to predict when or if a country will struggle with a future COVID-19 outbreak.

For example, India was doing relatively well during the first year of the pandemic. As a result, the Serum Institute of India (SII), a massive facility located in Pune and licensed to produce AstraZeneca-Oxford University and Novavax’s shots, felt comfortable committing to make hundreds of millions of doses that COVAX could distribute to other countries. But in the spring of 2021, India was buffeted by COVID-19. The nation decided to temporarily pause all exports and focus on distributing domestically made shots at home, hoping to minimize damage associated with the surge. That left COVAX about 190 million doses short of its goals by the end of June 2021.

The delay at Serum Institute is “one of the largest reasons [COVAX] has been behind schedule,” Gian Gandhi, the COVAX coordinator for UNICEF’s supply division, says. That raises why COVAX relied so heavily on a single manufacturer. While COVAX was trying to scrape together money in the summer of 2020, one of its partners, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with GAVI, signed a deal with the Serum Institute to ensure that 100 million vaccine doses would be available for low- and middle-income countries during the first half of 2021; they later expanded the agreement to cover an additional 100 million amounts.

“Gates was comfortable working with SII because they’d done many of these deals [with them] and felt this was an affordable way to proceed,” Gandhi says. The Gates Foundation’s support was critical for COVAX, but it made SII its primary supplier and largely dictated its ability to provide vaccines. “I’m not sure that there would have been another way because there wasn’t any other money,” Gandhi admits. Things might have turned out differently if global economic leaders like the U.S. had invested money initially, potentially inspiring other wealthy nations to do the same. In that alternate reality, perhaps COVAX would have had enough cash to sign bigger deals with vaccine makers and secure a more diverse array of manufacturers, boosting supply and safeguarding itself against unexpected delays.

Even better, of course, would be if COVAX hadn’t had to scramble for funding during an ongoing pandemic. Medical law expert Eccleston-Turner says the true blame lies with the international community’s failure to create something like COVAX before it was needed. A global vaccine hub could have been developed after the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which revealed similar disparities in vaccine access, but it never came together. “In the intervening years between 2009 and COVID, we did very little to solve this problem, to prevent this from being a problem in the future,” Eccleston-Turner says. “COVAX was always playing catch up.”

It’s hard to imagine any organization built on the fly amid a public-health crisis overcoming centuries of entrenched issues in global health. It’s not COVAX’s fault that some countries don’t have the public-health infrastructure required to store, distribute and manufacture vaccines, nor that centuries of inequality have left some countries able to vaccinate their populations many times over while others cannot afford to sign a single contract.

COVAX couldn’t single-handedly change the way high-income nations carry out their foreign relations and political maneuvers, which were always going to include some amount of nationalism, Gostin says. Some rich countries that bought enough vaccines for themselves haven’t been shy about requesting even more from COVAX. The U.K., as the Associated Press reported, asked for nearly half a million doses in June. “The primary function of a sovereign state is to serve the interests of its population, and you’re always fighting against that,” Eccleston-Turner says.

If there’s a silver lining…

COVAX has indisputably helped get vaccines to countries that otherwise could not have purchased them, and faster than has ever been done before. “There’s no question if you compare it to the [H1N1 pandemic]…we’ve done much better this time,” Berkley says. “But, of course, it’s not good enough.”

Dr. Ann Lindstrand, unit head for the WHO’s Essential Programme on Immunization, agrees that distribution has been a “disappointment” but also argues that the groundwork laid by COVAX will have a significant positive impact moving forward. “In the end,” says Lindstrand, “COVAX will prove itself as a very important mechanism for equitable global distribution when we have a common threat.”

COVAX has made many mistakes. But perhaps the biggest would be using its errors as a license to scrap it completely. If the COVAX saga has shown anything, the world can’t afford to wait for a solution to be built once a problem has already arrived. When a new health crisis emerges, there must be a ready tool—funded and organized and able to spring into action.

Now that beginthe basis of such a tool, the international community needs to commit to funding it so it doesn’t have to beg in the middle of a crisis, says Ezekiel Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania. Gostin adds that COVAX could be improved operationally—for example, it could be more transparent about who is making its decisions and why, something that can get lost in the shuffle of an initiative co-led by four different organizations.

Eccleston-Turner says COVAX and other global health groups also need to pay more attention to building manufacturing and public-health infrastructure in countries that need it rather than simply parachuting in and offering vaccines that many can’t use to their full extent. There’s room for improvement, to be sure. But Gostin says it’s more sensible to improve upon the existing—if imperfect—COVAX model rather than starting from scratch. “If we didn’t have COVAX,” he says, “we’d have to invent it.”

Tyson Houlding
I’m a lifestyle blogger with a passion for writing, photography, and exploring new places. I started this blog when I was 18 years old to share what I was learning about the world with family and friends. I’ve since grown into a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer with a growing audience. I hope you find inspiration and motivation while reading through my work!