In this file photo dated Saturday, January 30, 2021, a Moroccan nurse is administering the Oxford AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to a health worker at the Cheikh Khalifa Hospital in Casablanca, Morocco. The World Health Organization issued an emergency clearance for the coronavirus vaccine run by AstraZeneca on Monday, February 15, 2021. This should enable their partners to ship millions of doses to countries around the world as part of a United Nations-backed program to fight the pandemic (AP Photo / Abdeljalil Bounhar)

The World Health Organization has issued an emergency approval for AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine. This move should enable the UN agency’s partners to send millions of doses to countries as part of a United Nations-backed program to combat the pandemic.

In a statement Monday, WHO said it had approved AstraZeneca vaccines made by the Serum Institute of India and South Korean AstraZeneca-SKBio.

The WHO green light for the AstraZeneca vaccine is only the second the UN health agency has issued since the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine was approved in December. Monday’s announcement should trigger the delivery of hundreds of millions of doses to countries that have signed up for the United Nations-backed COVAX effort aimed at delivering vaccines to the world’s most vulnerable people.

“Countries that previously did not have access to vaccines can finally start vaccinating their health workers and vulnerable populations,” said Dr. Mariângela Simão, WHO Deputy Director General for Access to Medicines and Health Products.

The coronavirus has infected more than 109 million people and killed at least 2.4 million of them. However, many countries have not yet started vaccination programs and even rich countries face shortages of vaccine doses as manufacturers struggle to ramp up production.

WHO approves AstraZeneca's emergency COVID vaccine

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds an AstraZeneca vaccine vial during a visit to a coronavirus vaccination center at the Health and Wellbeing Center in Orpington, southeast London, on Monday February 15, 2021. (Jeremy Selwyn / Pool Photo via AP)

The AstraZeneca vaccine has been approved in more than 50 countries, including the UK, India, Argentina and Mexico. It’s cheaper and easier to use than the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, which requires frozen storage, which is not widely available in many developing countries. Both vaccines require two injections per person, weeks apart.

Last week, WHO vaccine experts recommended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for people over the age of 18, including in countries where variants of COVID-19 have been detected.

However, this contradicted the recommendation by the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that countries that had identified a virus variant first observed in South Africa should be “careful” when using the AstraZeneca vaccine, suggesting that other shots are prioritized should be instead.

The AstraZeneca vaccine makes up the majority of the COVAX inventory. Concerns have recently been raised after an early study indicated that it may not prevent mild and moderate illnesses caused by the variant first seen in South Africa. Last week, South Africa scaled back its proposed launch of the AstraZeneca vaccine and instead used an unlicensed shot from Johnson & Johnson for its healthcare workers.

COVAX has already missed its own goal of starting coronavirus vaccinations in poor countries while the shots were being introduced in rich countries. Numerous developing countries have rushed to sign their own private vaccine purchase contracts in recent weeks and have not wanted to wait for COVAX.

WHO approves AstraZeneca's emergency COVID vaccine

In this file photo dated Thursday February 11, 2021, a health worker is preparing a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine to be administered in Fiumicino near Rome International Airport. The World Health Organization issued an emergency clearance for the coronavirus vaccine run by AstraZeneca on Monday, February 15, 2021. This should enable their partners to ship millions of doses to countries around the world as part of a United Nations-backed program to combat the pandemic (AP Photo / Alessandra Tarantino, FILE)

The WHO and its partners, including the GAVI vaccine alliance, have not disclosed which countries will receive the first doses of COVAX. However, an initial plan indicated that a handful of rich countries that have signed several private vaccine deals, including Canada, South Korea and New Zealand, should also receive doses of COVAX early on.

Some public health experts called this “very problematic”, attributing it to the flawed design of COVAX, which allowed donor countries to double-dive by purchasing vaccines from the program while signing their own trade deals.

“Canada has ordered enough doses to supply its population about five times, and now they want to accept their share of doses of COVAX that would otherwise be given to poor nations,” said Anna Marriott, director of health at Oxfam International.

The WHO chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan said that rich countries that have signed up to receive vaccines from COVAX will not be denied their applications.

“The COVAX facility will not punish countries,” she said in early February.

WHO approves AstraZeneca's emergency COVID vaccine

In this file photo dated Friday, February 12, 2021, there are doses of AstraZeneca vaccines against COVID-19 in Fiocruz Foundation vials after they were filled in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The World Health Organization issued an emergency clearance for the coronavirus vaccine run by AstraZeneca on Monday, February 15, 2021. This should enable their partners to ship millions of doses to countries around the world as part of a United Nations-backed program to fight the pandemic (AP Photo / Bruna Prado, FILE)

After Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged more than $ 400 million to COVAX last year, he said it was always his country’s intention to get vaccines through COVAX.

Marriott said rich countries planning to take doses of COVAX should reconsider their intentions in light of their previous calls for support for the goal of efforts to provide equal access to vaccines to all rich or poor nations in the world.

“It seems pretty hypocritical,” she said. “Rich countries with their own supplies should make the right phone call and not get vaccines from countries that are really in dire straits.”

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