By Emma Farge
GENEVA (Reuters) - A top official at the U.N. agency in charge of vaccine deliveries via the COVAX sharing scheme urged recipient countries on Friday to address bottlenecks that could hamper the rollout set to begin this month.
COVAX is meant to start dispatching the first of hundreds of millions of COVID-19 vaccines for poorer countries from February in a bid to address the inequity in vaccine distribution which has so far favoured wealthy countries.
"My main point is we need to really urgently now make sure we address bottlenecks on a country level. We see quite a few," Benjamin Schreiber, COVAX coordinator for the U.N. children's agency, told Reuters.
COVAX is jointly run by the GAVI alliance, the World Health Organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and UNICEF.
The latter is in charge of procurement and supply in the world's biggest-ever such operation that involves preparing 2 billion COVID-19 vaccines for delivery this year - a mission Schreiber described as "tremendous and daunting."
As part of the plan, UNICEF has at least half a billion syringes stockpiled in warehouses ready to go and is working with airlines and freight companies on the first vaccine deliveries. Once the planes land, countries take over.
The first bottleneck he identified was capacity to handle the incoming shipments such as warehouse space and walk-in refrigerators to store the vaccines.
Another was trust and demand for shots.
"We can't leave any dose sitting around idle," he said.
However, asked about the February date, he expressed confidence it could start on time, albeit on a small scale, with deliveries ramping up later.
"I am pretty confident we will achieve something," he said, adding he expected other "little bottlenecks" to arise.
UNICEF has received requests from several countries to procure items needed for vaccination campaigns as well as the specialist freezers required to store the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, Schreiber said.
So far, about 1.2 million doses of the Pfizer Inc vaccine have been earmarked for around 18 countries through COVAX, he added.
Pfizer reached a deal with COVAX for 40 million doses last month. Asked to respond to criticism that COVAX should have secured more mRNA vaccines like Pfizer's earlier, Schreiber pointed to budget constraints.
"When deals were made (with wealthy countries) in May (2020) there was a real gap in funding in the COVAX facility," he said.
(Reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva; Editing by Matthew Lewis)