Aug. 25 (UPI) -- More than 170 countries are in talks with the World Health Organization to participate in its initiative to provide worldwide access to the COVID-19 vaccine, the U.N. health body said, urging them to confirm their commitments by the end of August.
The WHO said in a statement that as of Monday it was in discussions with 172 countries to join its COVAX Facility initiative that aims to manufacture and provide worldwide equitable access to a COVID-19 vaccine once one is developed.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO general-director, said during his opening remarks at a media briefing on COVID-19 that COVAX is a critical mechanism for developing a vaccine as it pools resources and spreads risk out over multiple vaccine candidates while providing all donor countries with access.
WHO said the facility has the largest and most diverse COVID-19 vaccine portfolio in the world, including nine candidate vaccines with a further nine under evaluation. It is also in talks with four more manufacturers to join the facility, Tedros said.
"This is in the interests of all countries, even those that have invested with individual manufacturers independently," he said. "We're working with vaccine manufacturers to provide all countries that join the effort timely and equitable access to all vaccines, licensed and approved."
Some 80 self-financing countries and 92 low- and middle-income economies have submitted non-binding expressions of interest to COVAX, representing more than 70% of the world's population, the WHO said. It is now urging those richer countries to confirm potential intent to participate by the end of August, with the aim to sign binding commitments by Sept. 18 so that the first upfront payments can be made no later than Oct. 9.
"Equal access to a COVID-19 vaccine is the key to beating the virus and paving the way for recovery from the pandemic," Stefan Lovfen, the prime minister of Sweden, said in a statement. "This cannot be a race with a few winners and the COVAX Facility is an important part of the solution -- making sure all countries can benefit from access to the world's largest portfolio of candidates and fair and equitable distribution of vaccine doses."
The success of COVAX, the WHO said, is dependent on not only securing countries' commitments but securing funding for research and development and supporting the participation of lower-income countries.
Tedros said competition by nations and manufacturers for a vaccine could lead to price hikes, adding that "vaccine nationalism only helps the virus."
"Our only way out of this pandemic is together," he said.
The plan for a global rollout of the vaccine, he said, is to ensure those at highest risk around the world, including healthcare workers and seniors, are covered when supplies are low.
As supplies increase, disbursement would be expanded based on each country's vulnerability to COVID-19, he said, with the goal of delivering at least 2 billion doses of an effective vaccine by the end of next year.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "And as I said last week, together we can do it."
Despite being the global epicenter of the pandemic with more than 5.7 million infections, the United States has not expressed interest in participating in the initiative.
Once the largest donor to the WHO, the United States formally requested to exit the organization in early July, after President Donald Trump and his administration accused it of enabling China to cover up its initial outbreak of the virus.
The virus emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December and has since spread the world over. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, the pandemic has infected 23.6 million people, resulting in 813,418 deaths.