Moderna Lags in WHO Vaccine Drive as Chinese Shots Near Approval

As concern over vaccine disparity across the world deepens, the World Health Organization is struggling to keep pace with rich western countries in green-lighting shots for use -- slowing down the Covax initiative which poorer countries are relying on for inoculation.

The global body has only approved one vaccine, the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE shot, for use, according to a document on the status of various Covid-19 vaccines in the WHO’s regulatory process. Moderna Inc., which has seen its mRNA shot authorized in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., the European Union and Israel, is yet to have a dossier accepted for review by the international body.

This is despite the fact that Moderna is one of 11 vaccine candidates that received funding from the WHO-backed Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness, though the $1 million provided paled in comparison to the hundreds of millions the company received from the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed.

In contrast, leading Chinese vaccine makers Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech Ltd. are further along in the WHO approval process, the document shows, though their shots are not among the nearly 2 billion already procured by Covax.

Moderna Lags in WHO Vaccine Drive as Chinese Shots Near Approval

Concern is growing over a mounting vaccine gap between rich and poor nations. This week, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the world was on “the brink of a catastrophic moral failure” as companies and countries prioritize inoculating widely in developed nations over targeting the more vulnerable in poor places.

Tedros lashed out at companies, saying they’re prioritizing approvals in rich countries where profit is highest instead of submitting full dossiers on their vaccines to the WHO. That could delay distribution through Covax, the WHO-backed initiative that aims to supply vaccines to poorer countries.

Moderna was the second after Pfizer to secure emergency-use approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December. Its vaccine is now being rolled out in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

The WHO document shows there have been no pre-submission meetings held between the agency and Moderna, nor has a dossier been accepted for review. The WHO’s anticipated decision date on Moderna’s vaccine remains end-February, though the agency says this is only an estimate.

The company is in dialogue with the WHO and is committed to a successful outcome, a Moderna spokesman said in an emailed statement to Bloomberg News, without giving further details.

Astra Application

An application for the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca Plc and Oxford University is now being scrutinized by the WHO and approval is anticipated at the end of February, while the Chinese shots are estimated to be green-lit in March, according to the document.

The WHO’s struggles have opened the door for China to ramp up its vaccine diplomacy, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledging last week to hand out more than a million doses during a swing through Southeast Asia.

That amounted to a geopolitical win just before the inauguration of President Joe Biden, who has made one of his first moves in office to re-engage with the WHO following Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the organization last year.

The Chinese vaccines’ quick progress through the WHO approval process raises the likelihood that they may be some of the first shots distributed by Covax, despite not being originally included for procurement.

“The Chinese government supports vaccine companies in joining Covax and actively facilitates this,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday. “I understand Chinese companies including Sinopharm, Sinovac and CanSino have all submitted formal applications to join the initiative.”

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