UK should take a “world-beating” role in supporting Covax and donate vaccines !

I am continuing yesterday’s theme on the need for vaccine equity worldwide as a means of starting to gain control of the pandemic, as it is so important, and yet so unlikely to achieve. The numbers speak for themselves – more than 80 million Covid-19 vaccine doses have been distributed around the world so far, and yet only 55 have gone to people in one low-income country: Guinea.

Medical staff members in France bring two boxes containing Covid-19 vaccines to Ile d’Hoedic, a small island of the western coast of France on January 29. The island has approximately 100 inhabitants in the winter months. 

As coronavirus continues to spread to all nations, new, dangerous variants picking up pace, the vaccination campaigns in all the world’s poorest countries haven’t even begun. Meanwhile, wealthy nations already vaccinating have pre-purchased access to supplies that can more than cover their populations — about four times over, in the case of the US. This doesn’t mean there are “warehouses full of extra vaccine doses” sitting around in high-income countries, explained Andrea Taylor, a Duke University researcher who has been analyzing the deals. But the countries with deals have priority manufacturing slots for 2021, “meaning that even if other countries make purchases now, they may have to wait months or even a year for delivery.”

Rich countries struck deals with manufacturers before clinical trials were complete, betting on which companies might come up with vaccines that work, and each including the UK signed multiple agreements, covering their populations many times over. These pre-purchase agreements made sense in the world we lived in six months ago, because we didn’t yet know which, if any, of the vaccine candidates would come to market. By November, high-income countries — along with a few middle-income countries — had already pre-purchased the rights to 3.8 billion vaccine doses, with options for another 5 billion – ie more doses than the population of the world.

As a result, high-income countries have 16 percent of the world’s population but currently hold 60 percent of the vaccine doses that have been purchased, with options for the remaining 40%. With this kind of vaccine access, people in rich countries will start to see their epidemics slow down over the next year, and life may regain some of its pre-pandemic rhythm. People in poor countries, will not experience any such benefit. In fact, it will likely take years for many low-income countries to even start fully fledged vaccine campaigns. Most developing countries will not have widespread access to the shots before 2023 at the earliest.

best estimate of vaccine coverage worldwide

This obscene disparity is very much against the interests of high-income countries which will help coronavirus continue to spread globally, allowing more opportunity for variants that resist the vaccines to emerge and Covid-19 outbreaks to reignite, including in rich countries. This is a cycle that repeats with just about every disease threat: Rich countries benefit from new health technology first, while poor countries have to wait years, or decades, for it to trickle down to them. However, there are growing calls to break the pattern — and Norway is showing the rest of the world how it can be done.

A Covid-19 vaccination center in Lucknow, India. 
Deepak Gupta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Covax is an unprecedented multilateral effort to support the development and equitable distribution of 2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to the world’s poorest countries before the end of 2021. More than 190 countries signed on — including rich ones, but the bilateral deals have undermined it. Rich countries want to have it both ways. They join Covax so they could proclaim to be good global citizens, and at the same time rob Covax of its lifeblood, which is vaccine doses. In the first quarter of the year, Covax is planning to begin delivering a first batch of 100 million vaccine doses. But vaccine distribution is already lagging in rich countries, where manufacturers have failed to deliver the doses they initially promised, and governments are struggling to set up systems to get millions of people through the door at once.

Workers unload a shipment of Covid-19 vaccines being delivered from India to Myanmar on January 22.
 Stringer/AFP via Getty Images

Norway is the first country to to start donating doses to other countries while still vaccinating their own population. It has access to three times as many vaccines as it needs, which allows it to redistribute vaccines to other countries. The distribution will start gradually and in parallel to the current vaccination of the Norwegian population as soon as relevant vaccines are approved. The Norwegian government decided it was both ethical and self-interested to ensure people in low-income countries can access effective vaccines as soon as possible. Otherwise it will be a long time before these countries are able to vaccinate a sufficiently large proportion of their populations, which would not benefit anyone. click full article

Now it’s time for other countries to follow suit. The UK is in a similar the same position as Norway with tens of millions of surplus doses, which should be donated to other countries….perhaps concentrating on Commonwealth countries where we have strong links. It would make the UK a global leader in supporting Covax in its aims to vaccinate priority groups in all nations.

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