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RIYADH: The chair of the board of vaccine group Gavi, José Manuel Barroso, said Saudi Arabia played a critical role in the global COVID-19 response, and made crucial efforts to help close the global vaccine equity gap.

COVAX, the global COVID-19 vaccine initiative, co-led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the World Health Organization, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, alongside key delivery partner UNICEF, is raising urgent funds to support lower-income countries’ COVID-19 vaccination needs, and Barroso conducted a number of virtual meetings with senior Saudi officials to discuss it.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Barroso, who is also the former prime minister of Portugal and president of the European Commission, said: “I indeed had the pleasure of attending virtual meetings with key officials at the Ministry of Finance in Saudi Arabia and the leadership of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center to discuss COVAX’s ongoing fundraising effort. CEO of Gavi Dr. Seth Berkley spoke to officials at the Ministry of Health to discuss how Saudi Arabia’s support could contribute to our efforts to break COVID in 2022.

Decades before the pandemic, Saudi Arabia invested in its healthcare systems and focused on increasing the number of healthcare workers. This investment and preparation meant that when the pandemic hit, Saudi Arabia was better equipped than most countries to handle the virus.

José Manuel Barroso

“I also had a very positive virtual meeting with Dr. Nayef Falah Al-Hajraf, secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, where we agreed to work together on shared objectives for global good and solidarity,” he added.

“Saudi Arabia has played a critical role in the global COVID-19 response. In November 2020, as the chair of the G20 Summit in Riyadh, the country succeeded in mobilizing donors to commit sizable funding to respond internationally to the COVID-19 pandemic, amounting to over $825 million including vaccines, medical supplies and medical equipment for 33 countries.

“This money has helped protect millions of lives, but the pandemic will continue to evolve and we must be prepared.”

There is sufficient supply to meet countries’ COVID-19 vaccine demands, but seeing a new COVID variant emerging every four months, it is absolutely critical that the world avoid the scenario of 2020 when money had to be raised before doses could be secured, Barroso said.

“We have learned the importance of securing funding ahead of time, especially should variant-adapted vaccines be required or if additional annual booster shots are needed. To mitigate against this risk, COVAX is seeking to secure contingent funding of $2.7 billion so that we are ready to place orders for additional vaccines as soon as they are needed.

“This ability to move rapidly is essential not only from a vaccine equity standpoint, but it is also necessary from a health security standpoint. Our focus is also on helping countries protect as many people as possible, which is why we are seeking $1 billion for in-country delivery, to improve both the rollout and uptake of vaccines,” said Barroso.

He pointed out that Saudi Arabia, together with the rest of the GCC states, can also extend stronger support to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation member states.

“Of the 92 countries eligible to receive donor-funded vaccines through the Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment, 37 are OIC member states and over 740 million, or over 60 percent of all COVAX vaccine doses, have been delivered to these nations. With Ramadan beginning, it is an opportune time to demonstrate solidarity with low and low-middle income countries,” he said.

“Saudi Arabia allocated $150 million to support the Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment, $5.3 million was pledged by KSrelief, and we have also received $2.3 million from the Gamers Without Borders initiative of Saudi Esports. This support, pooled together with funding from other donor countries has enabled COVAX to deliver over 1.4 billion doses worldwide, protecting millions of lives across 144 countries, including 83 lower-income countries and territories.

“Efforts like this are helping to close the global vaccine equity gap, and there has been an increase in global vaccine coverage in recent months.”

However, the world urgently needs to make sure vaccines end up in arms at a faster rate, so as not to leave space for the virus to mutate, he added.

With additional support, he said, Gavi and COVAX can help countries remove barriers preventing vaccine uptake by providing technical assistance, funding for vaccinators and health workers and support to build delivery systems, as they have done over the last few months disbursing over $600 million of delivery funding.

On Saudi Arabia’s successful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Barroso said: “Decades before the pandemic, Saudi Arabia invested in its healthcare systems and focused on increasing the number of healthcare workers. This investment and preparation meant that when the pandemic hit, Saudi Arabia was better equipped than most countries to handle the virus.

“This is a great lesson for the world and demonstrates the importance of investing in our health systems and preparing for future pandemics and disease outbreaks. With over 62 million vaccine doses administered, and strong community awareness of COVID-19, Saudi Arabia’s response to the pandemic should be applauded.”

Adding that the pandemic is far from over, he noted: “We are living through the worst pandemic in a hundred years, and while the global vaccine equity gap has started to close, there are still ample differences in vaccine coverage between the poorest and the highest-income countries. There have been over 6 million official deaths from COVID-19 with the global economy shrinking by $12.5 trillion.

“This is not the time for the world to become complacent; we have seen a new variant emerge every four months. In fact, a sub-variant of the highly transmissible omicron version of coronavirus, known as BA.2, is now dominant worldwide, prompting surges in many countries in Europe and Asia,” he added.

Barroso said COVAX has built a global procurement, shipment and delivery system to improve vaccine equity and bring COVID-19 vaccines to lower-income countries, resulting in the delivery of over 1.4 billion doses to 144 countries.

Transparency has been a fundamental part of the process of COVAX management, he added, adding COVAX regularly updates and consults with key partners and governments, and holds targeted briefings.

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