THE head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has called on member countries to support a massive drive to vaccinate at least 10 per cent of each country in the world by September and at least 30 per cent by December.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, announced the drive – dubbed “the sprint to September” – at the World Health Assembly meeting on 24 May. “Sprinting to our September goal means we must vaccinate 250 million more people in low and middle-income countries in just four months, including all health workers and the most at-risk groups as the first priority,” he said.

The global initiative for sharing vaccines equitably, COVAX, has shipped 72 million doses to 125 countries, said Ghebreyesus. That is only enough for about 1 per cent of the people in those countries. “The number of doses available to COVAX remains vastly inadequate,” he said.

COVAX had hoped to ship about three times as many doses by this point. It had been relying on doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India for the bulk of its supply. As the second wave of coronavirus cases in India worsened, the country stopped exporting the vaccine doses and diverted them for its own use. In a statement issued on 18 May, the Serum Institute of India said it hoped to resume deliveries to COVAX and others “by the end of the year”.

That has left COVAX scrambling for alternatives. Ghebreyesus called on manufacturers to give COVAX first refusal on any additional vaccine doses, or to commit to supplying half of all they make to COVAX this year.

On 21 May, COVAX announced a deal to buy 200 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which would go a long way to meeting the September target. However, it isn’t clear when these doses will be delivered.

Meanwhile, the US is building up a vast stockpile of doses that aren’t being used and may not be needed. The US could have more than 300 million excess doses by the end of July, according to a report by the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy in Washington DC.

The US has said it will share 60 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which is also manufactured in the US, but isn’t approved for use there. Last week, President Joe Biden announced that the US would also share “at least an additional 20 million doses” of US-authorised vaccines by the end of June.

Read more: What’s the fairest way to share covid-19 vaccines around the world?

“I think we will see the US government do far more in terms of donations in the coming months,” says Andrea Taylor at Duke University in North Carolina. “However, it is not at all clear that the US will redistribute these donated doses through COVAX, as the WHO is requesting.”

The US has backed COVAX with funding, pledging $4 billion last December, but much more is needed – from everyone. The initiative of which COVAX is part faces an $18.5 billion shortfall this year alone, said Ghebreyesus, and up to another $45 billion will be needed to fully vaccinate all adults worldwide by the end of 2022.

Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington in Seattle says the WHO’s 10 per cent goal is doable, but won’t be easy, especially in large countries like Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia. Taylor, who has been monitoring vaccine supplies, is less optimistic. Most vaccine deliveries are meant to begin by September, she says, so unless something changes, it is unlikely COVAX will get enough doses in the next three months.

But the WHO sees the 30 per cent goal as essential. “This is crucial to stop severe disease and death, keep our health workers safe and reopen our societies and economies,” said Ghebreyesus.