Rich countries hoarding COVID vaccines is ‘grotesque moral outrage’ that leaves UK at risk, WHO warns

World Health Organization's technical lead on the coronavirus pandemic, Maria van Kerkhove gestures during an interview with AFP in Geneva on October 13, 2020. (Photo by Richard Juilliart / AFP) (Photo by RICHARD JUILLIART/AFP via Getty Images)
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove: 'The inequity that we have seen with vaccine distribution is grotesque.' (Richard Juilliart/AFP via Getty Images)

A World Health Organisation (WHO) leader has lambasted the “grotesque inequity” of global coronavirus vaccine distribution, adding it puts countries such as the UK at risk.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, said it is a “moral outrage” that rich countries can have a large pool of vaccine doses while less than 1% of low-income countries can access jabs.

While she made a point of praising the UK for its contribution to the COVAX initiative, which is aiming to help deliver 1.3 billion doses to 92 developing countries this year, she added “there must be a way” rich countries can share more doses with at-risk countries.

Speaking on ITV’s Peston show on Wednesday night, Dr Van Kerkhove pointed out nearly 12 million COVID infections have been recorded globally in the past couple of weeks.

“So as long as this virus is circulating at such high levels across the world, the UK population remains at risk,” she said.

Dr Van Kerkhove added COVID outbreaks can be controlled with restrictions alone, but that the vaccine “makes our control efforts that much stronger”.

She warned: “We need those vaccines distributed around the world. The inequity that we have seen with vaccine distribution is grotesque. Less than 1% of low-income countries have access to the vaccine and that is a moral outrage around the world.

A Syrian medical worker receives a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in the country's rebel northwestern city of Idlib on May 6, 2021. - The rebel-dominated region received 53,800 AstraZeneca doses as part of the Covax programme, which aims to ensure equitable access to Covid vaccinations. (Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP) (Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images)
A medical worker in Idlib, Syria, receives a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine on Thursday. The region has received 53,800 doses as part of the COVAX programme. (AFP via Getty Images)

“We’re not faulting those who have access to the vaccine but we need more sharing of these doses through COVAX.”

The People's Vaccine Alliance has previously warned 90% of people in 67 low-income countries are likely to miss out on a jab this year.

In a message to countries such as the UK, which has successfully vaccinated a majority of vulnerable people, Dr Van Kerkhove added: “Those who have doses that can be shared once you’ve vaccinated your most at-risk… there must be a way that all countries – and we’re very very grateful for the contributions of the UK and US and across Europe and other countries – to continue vaccinating and protecting people in all countries but sharing the doses with those most at risk.”

Watch: Biden administration backs waiving of vaccine intellectual property protections

The UK government has been asked about sharing doses with India, which in the midst of a devastating wave of coronavirus infections, hospitalisations and deaths.

India is in dire need of vaccines despite it being the world’s largest manufacturer of jabs. However, the UK has so far refused to commit to sharing any of its doses.

On Sunday, foreign secretary Dominic Raab only said “we’ll always look very carefully at any requests we’ve got”. On Tuesday last week, Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said: “We don’t have surplus doses."

TOPSHOT - Health workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE kit) attends to Covid-19 coronavirus positive patients inside a banquet hall temporarily converted into a covid care centre in New Delhi on April 29, 2021. (Photo by TAUSEEF MUSTAFA / AFP) (Photo by TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP via Getty Images)
Health workers in a converted COVID care centre in New Delhi. (AFP via Getty Images)

It comes as the EU joined the US in backing a plan to waive intellectual property rights for COVID jabs, which some have argued will increase vaccine production around the world.

India has been among the dozens of countries calling for the waiver.

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Meanwhile, even though Dr Van Kerkhove warned the UK remains “at risk” when global cases are so high, other experts have played this down.

At a Downing Street briefing on Wednesday last week, England’s deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam said: “I am fairly hopeful that if the vaccine programme continues at pace and continues to be as successful as it has been, the third wave might just be a ‘third upsurge’ and much less significant because of the delinking of cases to hospitalisations and deaths.”

Watch: How England is leaving lockdown