The UK will donate 100m surplus coronavirus vaccine doses within the next year to low-income countries as part of at least 1bn doses due from the G7.
The US has promised to buy 500m Pfizer vaccines at a cost of $3bn for distribution to 100 poorer countries, with 200m to be distributed this year, in addition to releasing 80m of its surplus by the end of June.
But a group of campaigners including the former UK prime minister Gordon Brown said the G7 package did not address the structural problems facing low-income countries in securing a regular supply of vaccines, adding that these countries needed 12bn vaccines, at a cost of $50bn.
The World Health Organization said infections had been rising in the past three weeks across Africa. “Forty-seven of Africa’s 54 countries – nearly 90% – are set to miss the September target of vaccinating 10% of their people unless Africa receives 225m more doses,” it said. “At 32m doses, Africa accounts for under 1% of the over 2.1bn doses administered globally. Just 2% of the continent’s nearly 1.3 billion people have received one dose and only 9.4 million Africans are fully vaccinated.”
Boris Johnson first promised in February that the UK would give a majority of its surplus vaccines to poor countries, and Thursday’s announcement provided some of the details.
The UK will donate 5m doses by the end of September, beginning in the coming weeks. A further 95m doses will be supplied within the next 12 months, including 25m by the end of 2021. Eighty per cent of the UK’s 100m doses will go to Covax, the UN-led international clearing house for vaccines for poorer countries, and the remainder will be shared bilaterally with countries that the UK selects.
The UK believes it can afford to give up 5m doses in the coming weeks without delaying completion of its own vaccine programme. It has calculated that the 100m donation still leaves a buffer in case of new strains or supply bottlenecks. It points out it was the fourth-largest donor to Covax last year, and 96% of the doses it gave were Oxford/AstraZeneca, of which it helped fund the development.
Johnson said: “As a result of the success of the UK’s vaccine programme we are now in a position to share some of our surplus doses with those who need them. In doing so we will take a massive step towards beating this pandemic for good.”
UK officials said the cost of transferring the vaccines would be treated as overseas development assistance but would not come from the existing ODA budget, currently lowered to 0.5% of the UK national income. This means the as yet unsettled additional cost will represent additional UK aid spending.
Brown, speaking alongside Nita Deerpalsing from the UN Economic Commission for Africa, said the G7 should “guarantee that 11bn vaccines, enough vaccines to cover the whole world, will be available in months, and that the G7 will ensure that protection is delivered to all by paying their fair share of the $50bn cost of the vaccines, the testing, the protective equipment that the world urgently needs.”
Kirsty McNeill, Save the Children’s policy director, described the British contribution as “a good start” but added: “It’s really on the financing that the summit will be judged and we need a 24-hour drive from the PM to negotiate a global costed and financed roadmap to vaccinate the world and scale up supply.”
On Thursday, the eve of the G7 summit, Joe Biden confirmed his plan to buy 500m doses and said the US will be “the vaccine arsenal of the world”. The US president said in Cornwall: “This is about our responsibility, our humanitarian obligation, to save as many lives as we can. When we see people hurting and suffering anywhere around the world, we seek to help any way we can.”
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said pharmaceutical firms needed to donate 10% of their vaccines, and set a target of “60% of Africans vaccinated by the end of the first quarter 2022”.
Western leaders have been wary of sending surplus vaccines abroad, insisting they must protect their own populations first, but the balance of the argument has gradually shifted as stockpiles have mounted.
The UK has joined the EU in resisting a call led by South Africa and now backed by France and the US for a compulsory waiver on vaccine patents. It fears such a waiver would deter pharmaceutical firms from investing in research and development.
The UK is instead asking the G7 to encourage pharmaceutical companies to adopt the Oxford/AstraZeneca model of providing vaccines at cost for the duration of the pandemic. Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have already pledged to share 1.3bn doses on a non-profit basis with developing countries. On this model, pharmaceutical firms only start to rack up profits once the initial pandemic has been controlled.