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  • Pfizer and BioNTech will supply a small quantity of their COVID-19 vaccine to COVAX, Reuters reported.
  • COVAX was set up by health groups including the WHO to provide equal distribution of shots worldwide.
  • The scheme has struggled to amass doses, but Dr. Anthony Fauci said this week the US would finally join.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Pfizer and BioNTech will supply Covid-19 vaccines to COVAX, the World Health Organisation (WHO) scheme designed to share doses with poorer countries, two sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

South Africa expects to get vaccines for 10% of its population via Covax, for a payment of R2.2 billion.

The number of doses Pfizer and BioNTech share with the scheme would likely be relatively small, the sources said. One said the doses were mainly intended for healthcare workers.

The news comes a day after Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden's chief medical advisor, said the new administration plans to join COVAX. President Donald Trump had previously cut ties with the WHO and refused to sign up to the scheme.

The sources didn't share information on how much COVAX would pay for the doses.

Pfizer and BioNTech did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.

The WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, launched COVAX in April to prevent wealthier countries from hoarding vital doses of the vaccine.

Countries sign up to access an equal share of successful vaccine candidates, meaning that the doses are shared among richer and poorer countries. The scheme aims to provide lower-income countries with enough doses to cover 20% of their population.

The groups behind the initiative described it as a "lifeline" and "the only viable way" citizens in some of the poorest countries will get their shots.

But the scheme has struggled to amass as many doses as expected, and even its founders are worried about the initiative, with GAVI in December describing the risk COVAX will fail as "very high."

Many wealthy countries that signed up to the scheme, including the UK, EU, and Canada, have struck "side-deals" with pharmaceutical companies to guarantee their supply, researchers at Duke University found. Most of these deals were arranged prior to the vaccines' approval, whereas COVAX has been hesitant to order stocks before they're approved.

"The whole call for global solidarity has mostly been lost," Dr. Katherine O'Brien, the WHO's vaccine director, said in December. On Monday, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO, said the world is "on the brink of catastrophic moral failure" by failing to give vaccines to poorer countries.

On Thursday, COVAX lowered its forecast from delivering more than 2 billion COVID-19 doses worldwide this year to around 1.8 billion. With this, it plans to vaccinate around 27% of the population of 92 poor countries, it said.

Pfizer-BioNTech's shot, if confirmed, would become the second vaccine supplied to the scheme that already has regulatory approval in some countries, alongside the AstraZeneca-Oxford University shot. COVAX also has deals with the Serum Institute of India and Sanofi-GSK, but their shots are still in trial stages.

Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine could be tricky to roll out in the countries that COVAX was designed to help. It has to be transported at -94 degrees Fahrenheit (-70 degrees celsius), causing potential problems with distribution and storage, even in wealthy countries.

As well as lacking the right transport infrastructure, rural settlements in low-income countries may not even have access to a working fridge, Ted Schrecker, professor of global health policy at Newcastle University Medical School, previously told Insider.

In comparison, AstraZeneca-Oxford's vaccine, which is among those with deals with COVAX, can be stored, transported, and handled at normal fridge temperatures for at least six months and "administered within existing healthcare settings."

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