Moderna will supply a vaccination campaign backed by the World Health Organization with up to 500 million doses of its coronavirus vaccine starting late this year, a much-needed boost to a global initiative that has been plagued by stark inequity, funding shortfalls and a severe supply crunch.
The agreement, announced Monday soon after the WHO approved the company's messenger RNA vaccine for emergency use, comes amid growing calls for wealthy nations and vaccine-makers to do more to address the vaccination gap between rich countries and the rest of the world.
Following announcements from New Zealand and France, the United States said last week that it will share up to 60 million doses with other countries under as-yet-unknown terms. On Monday, Sweden said it will give 1 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to the WHO's Covax effort to "help address immediate-term supply delays."
The news comes as U.S. officials remain split over how to vaccinate the world, with some urging the White House to back an international proposal to waive drug company patents for coronavirus vaccines.
The Moderna deal is good news for vaccine access - but comes relatively late.
The two-dose Moderna vaccine demonstrated a 94.1% efficacy rate against covid-19 in clinical trials, one of the highest of all the vaccines in use. It has also shown high effectiveness against new variants, particularly the one first detected in Britain.
However, the deal will do little to alleviate short- and medium-term supply concerns. Under the agreement, the company will work with Covax to supply 34 million doses at its "lowest tiered price" by the end of 2021, with the remaining 466 million shots available in 2022.
Though such countries as Israel, the United States and Britain are beginning to see the benefits of mass vaccination campaigns, most others are still trying to secure enough vaccine doses. Researchers at Duke University predict that some countries will be waiting until 2023.
Covax aims to distribute up to 2 billion doses this year, with an eye to reaching 20 percent of the population in participating low- and middle-income countries. To date, it has delivered 49 million doses.
The effort has been hit by the dramatic coronavirus surgein India. Covax is heavily reliant on the AstraZeneca vaccine, particularly doses manufactured by India's Serum Institute. As India's coronavirus death toll has climbed, exports have all but ceased.
Covax knows it needs to diversify its vaccine portfolio, but the limited supply of messenger RNA vaccine and temporary halts on the use of other vaccines have made that tough.
In recent months, public health advocates have urged the United States to do more to force Moderna to share its vaccine, which was developed and manufactured with significant U.S. government support.
The company also received early funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a foundation that is leading Covax alongside the WHO and Gavi, a vaccine alliance. Accepting the grant, Moderna agreed to uphold "equitable access principles."
Monday's agreement brings Moderna closer in line with such competitors as Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, which had already pledged support for Covax.
"This is an important milestone as we work to ensure that people around the world have access to our COVID-19 vaccine," Moderna chief executive Stphane Bancel said in a news release.
"We are very pleased to sign this new agreement with Moderna, giving COVAX Facility participants access to yet another highly efficacious vaccine," Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, said in a news release.
"Expanding and having a diverse portfolio has always been a core goal for COVAX, and to remain adaptable in the face of this continually evolving pandemic - including the rising threat posed by new variants," he continued. "This agreement is a further step in that direction."