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People wait for their turn to receive a vaccine for COVID-19 at a hospital in Prayagraj, India, on May 22, 2021.

Rajesh Kumar Singh/The Associated Press

Health ministers from the G7 countries have shied away from a firm pledge to donate doses of COVID-19 vaccines to developing nations, despite growing pressure from dozens of international groups and the World Health Organization.

In a communiqué released on Friday after a two-day meeting in Oxford, England, the ministers said they are committed to sharing vaccine doses through the WHO’s COVAX program, but only when circumstances allow.

“We emphasize our support for global sharing of safe, effective, quality and affordable vaccine doses, including working with COVAX when domestic situations permit,” the communiqué said.

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The document listed other commitments – including sharing more data from clinical drug trials and working toward a vaccination certificate – but the issue of donating vaccine doses has become a major concern as wealthy countries vastly surpass poorer ones in the number of people immunized.

It’s also expected to be a hot topic for the leaders of the G7 countries – Canada, Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Italy and Japan – next week in Cornwall, England.

All but Canada and the United Kingdom have agreed to share at least some of their excess vaccine supply, and pressure is increasing on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Coronavirus Update: Rich countries are being urged to share vaccine supplies. Canada isn’t doing so yet

Canada and Britain have ordered hundreds of millions of doses, but both governments have expressed reluctance to share until more of their populations have been inoculated.

“Canada has committed to donating vaccine doses when in a position to do so,” Guillaume Dumas, press secretary to International Development Minister Karina Gould, told The Globe and Mail this week. “We are not there yet, but conversations are ongoing within the government.”

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Friday that plans to vaccinate children would take precedence over donations. “My first duty as health secretary for the U.K. is to make sure that the U.K. is protected and safe, and whilst, thankfully, children are very rarely badly affected by COVID themselves, they can still pass on the disease,” Mr. Hancock said after the summit.

The U.K. has ordered more than 500 million doses, enough to fully immunize its population of 67 million several times over. “As and when the U.K. has excess doses of vaccine, then, if we don’t need them, we’ll make sure they’re available to others,” Mr. Hancock added. “But at the moment, we don’t have any excess doses, because as soon as the doses are available for the U.K., we get them injected into British arms.”

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In a joint letter released on Friday, UNICEF UK and the Wellcome Trust, a charity that funds health research, called on Mr. Johnson to show leadership at the G7 and commit to sharing.

“Three months ago, you proudly pledged that the U.K. would share vaccines with the world. Now we ask that you turn this pledge into reality,” the letter said. “The U.K. must now show the historic leadership needed to end this crisis, by sharing at least 20 per cent of available doses between now and August and calling on the G7 together to commit to sharing one billion doses over 2021.”

The letter noted the COVAX program was 190 million doses short of its target and that many G7 countries, including Canada, ordered far more doses than they need. Canada also bought about 970,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from COVAX.

Earlier this week, 32 non-profit organizations in Canada, including the Anglican Church of Canada, UNICEF Canada and the Canadian Council of Imams, urged the federal government to share 10 per cent of its supply. The organizations noted that Canada had ordered 10 doses per capita, more than any other country.

The Canadian government has doubled its financial pledge to $440-million to help COVAX buy vaccines, but experts say actual doses are needed more.

That’s largely because the growing outbreak in India has led the Indian government to curtail exports from the Serum Institute, one of the world’s largest vaccine makers and a major supplier to COVAX. Of the 1.8 billion vaccines administered globally so far, only 0.4 per cent have gone to low-income countries.

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The United States outlined plans this week to share 19 million doses through COVAX with countries in Africa, Asia and South America. Another six million will go to countries including Canada and Mexico, and to United Nations frontline workers. The U.S. has pledged to donate 80 million doses by the end of June.

Japan, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden also announced dose-sharing pledges this week, while France, Germany, Italy, Norway, New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates made earlier pledges.

With a report from Geoffrey York in Johannesburg.

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