Why Norway turned down the chance to order nearly 700,000 Covid-19 vaccines

The Norwegian government secured an option for 1.9 million vaccine doses through the equitable access Covax scheme. When the opportunity came to purchase the first 677,000 doses the government declined.

Why Norway turned down the chance to order nearly 700,000 Covid-19 vaccines
(Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

Norway last year secured the option to purchase a large number of Covid-19 vaccine doses through the Vaccines Global Access (Covax). 

Led by organisations including UNICEF, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (Gavi) and the World Health Organization (WHO), Covax aims to offer equal access to vaccines for all countries. The scheme is primarily funded by wealthy Western countries, with the EU having pledged €500 million as of November 2020.

Norway paid 61 million kroner into to Covax last year, according to news wire NTB. That gave the country the option of receiving 1.9 million vaccine doses through the scheme, but the government chose to transfer the opportunity to order the doses to poorer countries, according to the report.

Though media Development Today has reported that the doses were “intended for domestic use in Norway”, minister for foreign development Dag Inge Ulstein told news agency NTB that the money paid to Covax came out of the budget for assisting development and that it was not correct to say that Norway has donated vaccines intended for the Norwegian public.

“In theory there may be a possibility that Norway could have demanded these vaccines for its own use, instead of the original intention which was to provide vulnerable health workers (with vaccines) in poor countries,” Ulstein said to NTB.

As such, Gavi informed Norway in February that 677,000 doses have been transferred under the scheme in accordance with a government decision taken in November last year.

It is expected that Norway will relinquish the option for the remaining 1.2 million doses, but this has not yet been formally decided, NTB writes.

Norway’s global health ambassador, John Arne Røttingen told NTB that the investment in Covax was made as an insurance policy in case the country was unable to secure enough vaccines through the EU.

READ MORE: Johnson & Johnson confirms schedule for vaccine delivery to Norway 

When the Gavi contacted the Norwegian government in November 2020 with the option to purchase the first set of doses Norwegian health authorities were then confident they would secure enough doses from the EU.

“We as a country said no and transferred these options to the poorest countries,” said Røttingen.

Norway’s vaccine agreement with the EU does not preclude it from receiving vaccines through Covax, he also noted.

Ulstein pointed out that Norway’s participation in the EU’s vaccine procurement scheme actually means that EU member states are giving up part of their own shares in the vaccines purchased by the EU to allow Norway to receive doses.

“As such, we can’t simultaneously take vaccines intended for the poorest countries in the world,” he said according to NTB’s report.

“I think most people would understand that’s a bit lacking in solidarity,” he added.

Some wealthy countries, such as the United States, have chosen to keep hold of all of their vaccines instead of allowing them to be exported them to other countries. 

On Monday they came under heavy criticism from the World Health Organisation which partly runs Covax. 

“The gap (access to vaccines between rich and poor countries) is getting more grotesque every day and the the unfair distribution are economic and epidemic plan’s for rich countries that are doomed to fail,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference on Monday. 

By February all 677,000 vaccines doses that Norway transferred had been delivered to poor countries.

The majority of the doses are of the AstraZeneca vaccine while the rest of the doses are of the Pfizer vaccine.

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Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”