When G7 leaders convene in Cornwall, England, this weekend, they’ll face growing pressure to confront an issue that in many ways has come to define the essence of global solidarity – sharing vaccines.
Few issues throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have better illustrated the gulf between rich and poor countries than access to vaccines. The G7 countries – Canada, Britain, the United States, France, Italy, Germany and Japan – have each ordered hundreds of millions of doses and are close to immunizing their adult populations. But developing countries lag far behind and in Africa alone just 2 per cent of people have had one shot.
The World Health Organization has estimated that 75 per cent of the global supply of COVID-19 vaccine has been sent to just 10 countries, while less than 1 per cent has gone to low-income countries. The COVAX program, set up by the WHO and other organizations last year, hoped to secure enough doses in 2021 to vaccinate 20 per cent of people in the 92 poorest countries. But COVAX has fallen far short of its target, and by the end of June it will be 190 million doses behind schedule.
The WHO and dozens of aid agencies have called on G7 leaders to respond with a commitment for each country to share 20 per cent of its excess supply, or roughly 150 million doses in total, between June and August.
“People don’t like to talk about this but it’s a moral issue,” said Graca Machel, a human-rights advocate and former education minister in Mozambique. “Why on Earth do you believe that there are lives which you can leave to die? It’s life and death for all of us.” During a recent panel discussion hosted by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a London-based non-profit organization, Ms. Machel said the emergence of variants of the virus in many countries demonstrated the need for a global approach to inoculation. “What we are saying is, we are a human family,” she said.
Five of the G7 member states have made pledges to share at least some vaccine, notably the United States, which has committed to donating 80 million doses to COVAX and other countries by the end of June. Media reports on Wednesday said President Joe Biden was set to go further this week by announcing plans to buy an additional 500 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine over the next two years to donate to COVAX, with 200 million coming this year.
Other countries have also made donation pledges, including Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, New Zealand, United Arab Emirates and Sweden.
So far Canada and Britain stand alone among G7 members in not making firm commitments to share vaccine. Both governments have said that they will donate supplies at some point, but not now.
The Canadian government has said that it is waiting to confirm a surplus of doses before announcing any plans to donate the shots. Canada has bought 252.9 million doses of vaccine, enough to inoculate the entire population more than three times over. According to The Globe and Mail’s vaccine tracking, the government is on course to have enough supply to give two doses to all eligible Canadians by August.
Britain has ordered 400 million doses of vaccine and so far 77 per cent of all adults have had one shot while 54 per cent have had two. Last week Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the country wasn’t in a position to share its supply. “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,” Mr. Hancock said after a meeting of G7 health ministers in Oxford, England.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is hosting the Cornwall summit, said that he wants the leaders to commit to a global vaccination effort. “Vaccinating the world by the end of next year would be the single greatest feat in medical history,” Mr. Johnson said this week. However, he didn’t provide any details about how that would be accomplished.
To be sure, Canada and the U.K. have made substantial funding pledges to COVAX to help it buy vaccines. Canada has committed $440-million while the U.K. has offered £548-million, or $937-million. But WHO officials and other groups say what COVAX needs now is doses.
That’s largely because the Indian government has restricted vaccine exports to cope with a surge in COVID-19 cases. The ban has left COVAX struggling since more than one-third of its supply was supposed to come from India’s Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine maker.
“We need an additional 250 million doses by September, and we need 100 million doses just in June and July,” the WHO’s executive director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week. “Six months since the first vaccines were administered, high-income countries have administered almost 44 per cent of the world’s doses. Low-income countries have administered just 0.4 per cent.”
Even with the extra 500 million doses promised by the U.S. and the pledges made by other countries, the total will fall well short of the 11 billion doses the WHO and others say are needed to vaccinate the entire world this year, not including billions more for annual booster shots.
Robert Yates, a political health economist in Britain who specializes in universal health coverage, said G7 leaders must commit to doing much more than just donating vaccines. They also need to boost spending on vaccine and drug development, and they need to make it easier for developing countries to obtain the technology and know-how to make vaccines.
“What the pandemic has exposed is underinvestment in the health sector,” Dr. Yates said during a recent discussion at London’s Chatham House. “We haven’t been focusing enough on things like pandemic preparedness and antimicrobial resistance. These aren’t the big flashy hospitals that we all think of in terms of health systems. But these are the issues that we need to address.”
Dr. Yates said the G7 has the money, power and resources to show real leadership this week and help end the pandemic. “There really is the potential for the G7 leaders to do something dramatic,” he added. “But will they really act?”
With a report from Marieke Walsh in Ottawa
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