Six major NGOs, including Global Citizen, have signed an open letter addressed to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling on the British government to share the country’s surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses quickly to help end the pandemic globally.
The letter specifically calls for the UK to immediately start sharing vaccine doses with COVAX — a vaccine sharing facility that aims to ramp up the manufacturing and distribution of vaccines to low- and middle-income countries that would not otherwise be able to acquire them. COVAX aims to deliver 2 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021.
The scheme is one of four pillars that make up the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, also known as ACT-A, an initiative spearheaded by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that includes efforts to provide treatment and diagnostic tools to low-income countries, as well as strengthening health systems globally.
Signed by Global Citizen’s UK country director Marie Rumbsy, as well as the directors of the Wellcome Trust, the ONE Campaign, Save the Children UK, the Pandemic Action Network, and RESULTS UK — all charities working on global health and ending extreme poverty — the letter argues that accelerating global dose sharing is the “the quickest way to end the pandemic.”
“Failing to get the tools to beat the virus to every corner of the planet, heightens the risk of variants that evade our current tools to fight the disease,” the letter states.
One of the signatories, Sir Jeremy Farrar, who leads the Wellcome Trust, is a member of the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) which advises the government on how to deal with the pandemic.
Farrar told reporters: "Now is the time to think beyond our borders. The world won't be safe while any single country is still fighting the virus."
“If left to spread, it risks mutating to an extent where our vaccines and treatments no longer work," Farrar added. "This goes beyond ethics — it’s a scientific and economic imperative. Science has given us the exit strategy. We must use it properly.”
In the letter, the group emphasises the success that the UK has had at developing and rolling out vaccines to its own population, and commends the funding the government has already provided to the ACT-A initiative.
However, “funding for the global response is only part of the solution,” the charities argue. They say that the UK is on track to have more than 100 million surplus vaccine doses (based on the assumption that 100% of the UK population gets fully vaccinated) and there is a “high risk that the UK will be hoarding limited supply.”
That means that while the UK gets everyone vaccinated, health workers and vulnerable people in poorer nations are still going without.
It is a situation that is being addressed by COVAX, as countries such as Ghana and others start to receive shipments of the vaccine. But roll-out for poorer countries has generally been much slower than in wealthier nations.
By February 2021, almost 12 months after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared by the WHO, the UK had managed to acquire 400 million vaccine doses, while just one of the 29 poorest countries in the world, Guinea, has received jabs — a sum of 55 doses donated by Russia.
In February, Johnson committed in a speech to donating the majority of the UK’s surplus supply of COVID-19 vaccines in future. However the issue is that the government did not provide a timeline. “The UK will send the majority of any future surplus vaccines to the COVAX scheme to support developing countries,” a government statement said at the time.
The charities have therefore urged Johnson to publish a “clear roadmap” for how donations to COVAX will be increased in the coming months. “Given the ongoing success of UK vaccination efforts, millions of doses could be made available well before the autumn, hastening the end of the global pandemic.”
They also highlight that the doses should be donated and not resold to COVAX and the value of the donations should be seen as in addition to the overseas aid budget, which has been reduced this year from 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) to 0.5%.
As the UK is set to host the G7 summit in 2021 (a gathering of the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and US), the NGOs also point out that Britain now has a vital opportunity to show leadership.
"Vulnerable people in low-income countries need access to the vaccines," said Global Citizen's Rumbsy, commenting on the letter. "With over half of the UK adult population vaccinated, the time for the UK to start sharing vaccines with COVAX is now. As presidents of this year's G7, the UK should lead by example by setting out a roadmap for how it will donate vaccines, starting now."
Romily Greenhill, UK director of ONE, added in a press statement: “Global vaccine access is as important to people in Doncaster as it is for families in Dhaka."
“We will only crack the pandemic crisis at home if we defeat the virus in every corner of the planet, otherwise there is a real chance of dangerous new strains emerging that increase the risk to all of us," she continued. “So until we get vaccines everywhere, the pandemic isn’t going anywhere."
In response to the letter, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told Sky News: "Clearly our first priority is ensuring that we deliver vaccines in the UK."
"We clearly don't currently have a surplus of vaccines. Should we get to the point where we have a surplus of vaccines, we'd make a decision on the allocation of that surplus," he said.
A UK government spokesperson also put out a statement in response, saying: “The UK has played a leading role in championing global access to coronavirus vaccines. This includes contributing £548 million, as one of the largest donors, to the COVAX Advance Market Commitment, which has already helped 20 lower-middle countries to receive doses."
“The prime minister has confirmed the UK will share the majority of any future surplus coronavirus vaccines from our supply with the COVAX pool, when these are available," they added. "No one is safe until we are all safe."