Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged that the UK will share the majority of surplus COVID-19 vaccines with low-income countries in a virtual speech delivered at the G7 summit on Friday.
He also encouraged other G7 leaders (including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the US) to increase their funding of the COVAX facility to further support equitable access to vaccines globally.
COVAX is a vaccine-sharing scheme set up by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. It aims to secure at least 2 billion doses by the end of 2021 and to provide doses to 92 low- and middle-income countries that would not otherwise be able to secure them.
“The UK will send the majority of any future surplus vaccines to the COVAX scheme to support developing countries,” a government statement said, while a source speaking to the BBC said that “more than half” the surplus would be donated.
The announcement comes as the ONE Campaign, an anti-poverty group, released research on Friday finding that, in total, wealthier nations have bought 1 billion more doses of coronavirus vaccines than needed to vaccinate its citizens. That's enough to vaccinate the entire adult population of Africa, the group points out.
“This huge vaccine excess is the embodiment of vaccine nationalism, with countries prioritising their own vaccination needs at the expense of other countries and the global recovery,” a spokesperson for ONE told Al Jazeera. They added that “a massive course correction” in distribution was needed to fight the pandemic.
The UK director of the ONE Campaign, Romilly Greenhill, told the BBC that the UK’s promise of donating surplus would not happen fast enough. She said: "The virus won't wait on us to be ready before it mutates, so we need to get these vaccines around the world as quickly as possible."
On Wednesday, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines was "wildly uneven and unfair.” He said 10 countries had administered 75% of all vaccinations worldwide, while 130 countries had not yet received a single dose.
"This huge excess is the embodiment of vaccine nationalism," @Ottenvos, ONE's Senior Policy Director, talking about how rich nations are buying 1 billion more #COVID19 vaccine doses than needed to fully vaccinate their citizens in this @Reuters article: https://t.co/KExk1h9UVF— ONE (@ONECampaign) February 19, 2021
French President Emmanuel Macron has also said that richer countries should do more to address the global imbalance. He told the Financial Times that wealthier countries should send up to 4% to 5% of their current vaccine supplies to poorer nations, and suggested that the amount should be sent to countries that needed them straight away.
"It's about much more rapidly allocating 4-5% of the doses we have,” he said. "It won't change our vaccination campaigns, but each country should set aside a small number of the doses it has to transfer tens of millions of them, but very fast, so that people on the ground see it happening."
However, UK MP and Foreign Minister James Cleverly told the BBC that the amount that ends up being shared by the UK would be “a figure significantly greater than that [4-5%].”
Britain has a population of 66 million and has ordered more than 400 million doses of various vaccines, so many will be left over once all adults are vaccinated. Almost 17 million people in the UK have now received at least one vaccine dose, with 573,724 of these receiving two doses, according to the latest figures reported by the BBC on Friday.
100-day vaccines target
The majority of Johnson’s speech to the G7 summit, which the UK is chairing this year, was focused on encouraging governments to joint fund research and development programmes that would allow a vaccine to be developed for emerging diseases in just 100 days.
Johnson has asked Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific advisor, to work with international organisations including the WHO and CEPI to advise the G7 on speeding up the process for developing vaccines, treatments, and tests for common pathogens. The idea being that through “increased international collaboration”, we can “save lives in future health crises and prevent the next pandemic”, the UK government has said.
"The development of viable coronavirus vaccines offers the tantalising prospect of a return to normality, but we must not rest on our laurels," Johnson said in his speech. "As leaders of the G7 we must say today: never again."
“By harnessing our collective ingenuity, we can ensure we have the vaccines, treatments, and tests to be battle-ready for future health threats, as we beat COVID-19 and build back better together," he continued.
The first vaccines against COVID-19 were developed in 2020 in approximately 300 days, so it would mean accelerating the process to produce a successful vaccine against any new disease by two-thirds, to just 100 days.