The World Health Organization on Monday approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine for emergency use, paving way for its distribution in developing countries through the COVAX programme.

The WHO-backed COVAX seeks to ensure equitable access to vaccines in the world. Vaccines distributed through the programme are expected to cover 3.3% of population of 145 countries participating in the programme.

The global health agency cleared the vaccines manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and South Korean company SK Biopharmaceuticals.

Dr Mariangela Simao, WHO assistant-director general for access to medicines and health products, said that the move will allow countries with no access to vaccines so far to finally start inoculating health workers and other high-risk groups.

“But we must keep up the pressure to meet the needs of priority populations everywhere and facilitate global access,” Simao said. “To do that, we need two things – a scale-up of manufacturing capacity, and developers’ early submission of their vaccines for WHO review.”

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also spoke about the need to speed up the vaccine manufacturing process. “We continue to call for Covid-19 vaccine developers to submit their dossiers to WHO for review at the same time as they submit them to regulators in high-income countries,” he said, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said that it hoped to provide over 300 million (30 crore) doses of the vaccine to 145 countries through COVAX in the first half of 2021. “These doses will be allocated equitably according to the COVAX Allocation Framework,” the company said in a statement.

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AstraZeneca’s Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot said the WHO’s clearance was a huge step in ensuring global access to the company’s vaccine.

Serum Institute of India CEO Adar Poonawalla said, “We have been waiting for this final milestone. I am happy and relieved that with the WHO’s EUL [Emergency Use Listing] we will be able to start the deliveries to African and other low and middle-income countries immediately. Countries with a large population must be protected as soon as possible.”

The WHO has found that AstraZeneca’s vaccine fulfilled the “must-have” criteria for safety and that its efficacy benefits were greater than the risks, Reuters reported. A WHO panel had recommended that the shot be administered to all adults at an interval of around 8 to 12 weeks. The panel added that the vaccine could also be used against the South African coronavirus variant.