The countries that hoard possible coronavirus or COVID-19 vaccines while excluding others are going to deepen the novel virus pandemic, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus mentioned on Tuesday, issuing a last-ditch call for nations to join a global vaccine pact.

The WHO has an August 31 deadline for the wealthier countries for joining the nations "COVAX Global Vaccines Facility" for sharing vaccine hopefuls with the developing nations. Tedros mentioned that he sent a letter to the WHO's 194 member states, urging participation.

The global health agency also raised concerns that the pandemic's spread was being driven now by younger people, many of whom were unaware they were infected, posing a danger to vulnerable groups. Tedros' push for nations to join COVAX comes as the European Union, Britain, Switzerland and the United States strike deals with companies testing prospective vaccines. Russia and China are also working on vaccines, and the WHO fears national interests could impede global efforts.

"We need to prevent vaccine nationalism," Tedros told a virtual briefing. "Sharing finite supplies strategically and globally is actually in each country's national interest." The European Commission has urged EU states to skirt the WHO-led initiative, citing worries over its cost and speed. More than 21.9 million people have been reported to be infected by the novel coronavirus globally and 772,647​ have died, according to a Reuters tally.

'Not Twisting Arms'

Coronavirus
Workers make face masks in the workshop of a textile company in Jimo District of Qingdao, east China's Shandong Province, Feb. 12, 2020. Qingdao Municipal Bureau of Industry and Information Technology has mobilized two large textile companies to produce face masks to help the fight against the novel coronavirus epidemic. With the help and coordination of local authorities, the companies have retrofitted their production equipment and modified the assembly lines to produce face masks. It's expected that an average of 60,000 face masks could be produced per day in the first phase of production. (Photo by Liang Xiaopeng/Xinhua/IANS) Xinhua/IANS

So far, the COVAX facility has attracted interest from 92 poorer countries hoping for voluntary donations and 80 wealthier countries, a number little changed from a month ago, that would finance the scheme, the WHO said. Still, some nations are waiting for the Aug. 31 deadline before making a commitment as the facility's terms are still being finalized, Bruce Aylward, who leads the WHO's ACT Accelerator initiative to speed supplies of COVID-19 diagnostics, drugs and vaccines, said.

"We are not twisting arms for people to join," Aylward said. "We've had more and more discussions with a broader and broader group of players ... to work through what might be the barriers to collaborating - issues around price, issues around timing, issues around national expectations."

With more than 150 vaccines in development, about two dozen in human studies and a handful in late-stage trials, the WHO said even countries signing bilateral deals boost their odds by joining COVAX. "Which one will be the candidate that will be successful, we don't know yet," said Mariangela Simao, a WHO assistant director for drug and vaccine access. "By joining the facility at the same time that you do bilateral deals, you're actually betting on a larger number of vaccine candidates."

COVAX now covers nine vaccine candidates. The WHO remains worried that infections among younger people are rising globally, putting at risk elderly and sick people in densely populated areas with weak health systems. "The epidemic is changing," WHO Western Pacific regional director, Takeshi Kasai, said. "People in their 20s, 30s and 40s are increasingly driving the spread."

(With agency inputs)