By Christian Akorlie
ACCRA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization's global vaccine-sharing scheme COVAX delivered its first COVID-19 shots on Wednesday, as the race to inoculate the world's poorest people and tame the pandemic accelerates.
Almost a year after the WHO described the novel coronavirus as a global pandemic, a flight carrying 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India landed in Ghana's capital Accra.
Local representatives of the WHO and the United Nations children's agency UNICEF described the vaccines' arrival as a "momentous" step.
"In the days ahead, frontline workers will begin to receive vaccines, and the next phase in the fight against this disease can begin – the ramping up of the largest immunization campaign in history," said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
The delivery comes eight months after the launch of the COVAX initiative, aimed at pooling funds from wealthier countries and non-profits to distribute vaccines equitably around the world.
The shots, part of an initial tranche for low and middle-income countries, will be used by Ghana to start a vaccination drive from March 2 that will prioritise frontline health workers and others at high risk.
"The first segment of the population that will receive the 600,000 doses will be health workers, adults 60 years and over, people with underlying health conditions," Ghana's government said on Wednesday.
Some senior government officials, teachers, security personnel and essential workers in Accra and the country's second city Kumasi, will also be vaccinated.
Coronavirus infections have soared in Ghana to over 81,200, and 584 people have died, with nearly as many dying in the first two months of this year as in the whole of 2020, health ministry data showed.
"There are a lot of frontline workers who are self-isolating because they have been exposed and got infected," Emmanuel Addipa-Adapoe, a medical officer at the Greater Accra Regional Hospital, said. "Receiving the vaccine will be like arming them for the task ahead."
The roll-out in Ghana is a milestone for COVAX, which is trying to narrow a politically sensitive gap between the millions being vaccinated in wealthier countries and the comparatively few who have received shots in less developed parts of the world.
It plans to deliver nearly 2 billion doses this year, including 1.8 billion to poorer countries at no cost to their governments, and to cover up to 20% of countries' populations. But it will not be sufficient for nations to reach herd immunity and effectively contain the spread of the virus.
The African Union (AU) has been trying to help its 55 member states buy more doses in a push to immunize 60% of the continent's 1.3 billion people over three years. Last week, its vaccine team said 270 million doses of AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines secured for delivery this year had been taken up.
China has donated small batches of its Sinopharm vaccine to countries including Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea. And Russia has offered to supply 300 million doses of its Sputnik V vaccine to the AU scheme along with a financing package.
But many countries are largely reliant on COVAX.
On Tuesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged wealthy nations to share vaccine doses with COVAX, saying the goal of equitable distribution was "in jeopardy".
"Today is a major first step towards realizing our shared vision of vaccine equity, but it's just the beginning," he said on Wednesday.
He had earlier warned that so far 210 million doses of vaccine have been administered globally but half of those are in just two countries and more than 200 countries were yet to administer a single dose.
COVAX is co-led by the WHO, the GAVI vaccines alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and UNICEF.
It was launched in June 2020 to try to prevent poorer countries being pushed to the back of the queue as wealthier nations bought billions of doses for their populations.
COVAX said it had allocated the first tranche of 330 million doses of vaccines for 145 countries.
Africa's reported COVID-19 death toll surpassed 100,000 last week, a fraction of those on other continents but rising fast amid a second wave of infections.
South Africa paused its roll-out of AstraZeneca's vaccine after preliminary trial data showed less efficacy against the 501Y.V2 coronavirus variant dominant there, but other African countries say they will use the shot.
Ghana is among six African countries that have confirmed cases of the variant.
(Reporting by Christian Akorlie in Accra and Alessandra Prentice and Bate Felix in Dakar; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Kate Kelland in London; Writing by Alessandra Prentice and Bate Felix; Editing by Alexandra Zavis, Richard Pullin, Catherine Evans and Giles Elgood)