Shipments of nine million COVID-19 vaccine doses are being delivered from the UK to countries around the world this week to help fight the pandemic.
The deliveries are much needed because, while around 70% of the UK’s adult population has so far received two doses of the vaccine, in the world’s poorest countries only 1.4% of people have been vaccinated, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Some countries including Burundi, North Korea, and Eritrea, have yet to start a vaccination programme with limited access to a vaccine supply and health inequalities hampering the roll-out.
According to the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, five million of the doses being shipped out will go to COVAX, the vaccine sharing facility set up to ensure low- and middle-income countries have access to COVID-19 vaccines.
In addition, Jamaica will receive 300,000 doses, 817,000 will go to Kenya, and 600,000 will be sent to Indonesia, the FCDO says, with the remainder going to additional countries not specified in the press release that don’t yet have enough vaccines to protect their populations. All the doses being shared are the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, produced in the UK.
According to the government, this shipment is the first tranche of the 100 million vaccines Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged the UK would share within the next year at June’s G7 summit in Cornwall, with 30 million of those doses due by the end of this year.
At least 80 million of the 100 million total doses pledged will go to COVAX, with the rest going directly to individual countries, the government’s statement adds.
It comes several months after the UK government first indicated it would share the country’s surplus COVID-19 vaccines — with Johnson first saying they would do so in February.
As the UK had by then secured at least 100 million more doses than was required to cover its population, Global Citizen and other NGOs called on the government to start sharing vaccines much more quickly, and in greater amounts to meet vast global demand.
Marie Rumsby, Global Citizen’s UK Country Director said: “It’s great that they have started sharing vaccines now — and those nine million will make a huge difference to those who receive them — but we need more urgency.”
“We need one billion vaccine doses shared by G7 countries by September, and two billion by the end of the year,” Rumsby added. “So nine million is just a drop in the ocean."
Vaccine equity campaigners have also criticised the UK’s decision to oppose an intellectual property waiver for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, currently being discussed by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). If a waiver was to be voted on by all members of the WTO, it would allow low- and middle-income countries to produce their own COVID-19 vaccines and boost manufacturing and vaccine supply the world over.
Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, which campaigns for vaccine intellectual property waivers, told the Guardian: “We should be building domestic manufacturing in those [lower income] countries by waiving vaccine intellectual property and sharing technological know-how."
In response to the news of this week’s nine million doses being delivered, Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which co-leads the COVAX facility along with WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), welcomed the news.
In a statement he said: “The UK has been a steadfast supporter of COVAX since its inception and this announcement comes at an important time.”
“Global vaccine demand is far outstripping supply, leaving millions of the most vulnerable unprotected, while higher vaccine coverage worldwide is one of our best shields against new variants,” Berkley added. “In this pandemic nobody is safe until everyone is safe.”
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