By Stephanie Nebehay and Kate Kelland
GENEVA/LONDON (Reuters) - The COVAX alliance which aims to secure fair access to COVID-19 vaccines for poor countries said on Friday it now had agreements in place for nearly 2 billion doses, roughly doubling its supply, with the first deliveries due in early 2021.
The initiative, co-led by the GAVI vaccine alliance, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), said it aimed to deliver 1.3 billion doses of approved vaccines next year to 92 eligible low- and middle-income economies.
All 190 economies that have signed up to COVAX will "have access to doses in the first half of 2021, with first deliveries anticipated to begin in the first quarter of 2021 – contingent upon regulatory approvals and countries’ readiness for delivery," it said in a statement.
"Today’s announcements offer the clearest pathway yet to end the acute phase of the pandemic by protecting the most vulnerable populations around the world."
New agreements announced on Friday include an advance purchase agreement with AstraZeneca for 170 million doses, and a memorandum of understanding for 500 million doses from Johnson & Johnson.
Richard Hatchett, CEPI's chief executive, said the COVAX alliance was also in talks with Pfizer and BioNtech - whose COVID-19 won regulatory approval in the United States last week and in Britain this month. The group is also in talks with Moderna, which expects to have its COVID-19 vaccine approved shortly, he said.
Getting vaccine doses to poor countries is a huge challenge, with wealthy countries determined to vaccinate their entire populations as quickly as possible. COVAX is funded by donor countries, multilateral lenders such as the World Bank and private charities such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said Friday's announcement of extra COVID-19 vaccine doses for COVAX was "fantastic news and a milestone in global health".
GAVI's chief executive, Seth Berkley, said the goal of providing global, equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines was "alive and well". But he added: "We still need more doses, and yes, we still need more money."
COVAX was launched by GAVI and the WHO in April to ensure access for COVID-19 shots to poor and middle-income countries.
(Additional reporting by Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt, Editing by Peter Graff and Timothy Heritage)