As G7 leaders met on Saturday to discuss a range of measures to better prepare for the next pandemic, they didn’t need to look very far to see that the current outbreak is still raging.
Britain is facing a surge in cases of the Delta variant, first detected in India, that has forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson to reconsider plans to ease all remaining lockdown restrictions on June 21. Instead, Mr. Johnson is expected to announce on Monday that current measures will remain in place for another month.
The number of COVID-19 infections has been soaring in recent days mainly because of the Delta variant, which health officials say now dominates virtually every corner of the country. A report last week from Public Health England said that the number of cases tied to the variant had jumped to 42,323 from 12,431 in just seven days.
Scientists have estimated that the variant is roughly 60 per cent more transmissible than the Alpha mutation, which originated in Britain, and they say it’s slightly better at evading vaccines. They also add that it’s only a matter of time before Delta spreads to many more countries.
“I think other countries will probably end up going down a similar path [as the U.K.], because we saw the same thing happen with the Alpha variant,” said Jeff Barrett, director of the COVID-19 genomics initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. “It will move from country to country over some slightly difficult-to-predict time frame. But I suspect it will spread globally over time.”
The rise of the Delta variant has put more pressure on G7 leaders to address the global gap in COVID-19 vaccinations. Public health officials in Britain have said that two shots of vaccine were still highly effective against the Delta variant, especially in preventing severe illness. However, only a fraction of people in developing countries have had even one shot, leaving ample opportunity for the variant to spread, especially as countries begin to ease lockdown measures.
“We have given the virus opportunity and the virus has more capacity [because of the variant],” said Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program. “And if you put opportunity with capacity together, you get the situation we saw in India, and we’re seeing in a number of other countries at the present time.”
During their meeting in Carbis Bay, England, the G7 leaders — from Canada, Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Italy and Japan — agreed on a plan to cut the time it takes to develop vaccines and to bolster global surveillance networks to track viruses. The G7 has also committed to donating more than one billion doses of vaccine to low-income countries over the next year.
On Saturday, the leaders heard a presentation by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, who applauded their donations but urged them to do much more.
“We welcome the generous announcement made by G7 nations about donations of vaccines but we need more [doses] and we need them faster,” Dr. Tedros told reporters after his presentation. He added that the WHO required 100 million doses in June, another 100 million in July and 500 million by the end of the year to meet its goal of vaccinating 10 per cent of the world’s population this year. And, he said, there was no reason that, with the help of the G7, the vaccination program couldn’t go faster and ensure that 70 per cent of the population was immunized within a year.
Dr. Tedros also called on G7 leaders to join a global drive to ease patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines in order to boost production. Waiving intellectual property rights, or IP, was an essential step in helping to end the pandemic as quickly as possible, he said. “It’s going to be very tragic not to really act, and to delay the pandemic because we are not doing what’s in our hands,” he said.
U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron have supported waiving IP protection, but other G7 leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have been less certain. Britain and the European Union, which are home to some of the largest pharmaceutical manufacturers, have argued that easing IP rules alone won’t increase production. Instead, they say the solution lies in reducing export barriers, sharing technology and encouraging drug companies to build plants in more countries.
The G7 can’t act alone, and any move to waive patent protection would need the backing of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to have any impact. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the WTO’s director-general, told reporters on Saturday that the organization’s 164 members have begun discussing the issue and she hoped an agreement could be reached by the end of the year.
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala noted that 80 per cent of vaccine exports come from just 10 countries in North America, Europe and South Asia. She added that while it was up to WTO members to resolve the IP issue, the G7 and other countries must do more to address vaccine inequity.
“Inequity of access to vaccines is unacceptable,” she said. “I do not think that in a world in which we know we have the technology to save lives and we know people are dying … that this is a world that anyone wants to see continue. We need to do everything possible, including [dose] donations and including increased manufacturing.”
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