Britain’s announcement that it is sending 9 million surplus doses of coronavirus vaccine to developing countries has been denounced as “shamefully inadequate”, on a day when the UK again blocked moves to enable poorer nations to start producing their own supplies.
The People’s Vaccine Alliance said the consignment amounted to little more than 1 per cent of the amounts needed to meet the African Union target of protecting 60 per cent of the continent’s people, describing the gift as “a bit like sending a block of cheese to a food crisis”.
And campaigners noted that it came on the day that the World Trade Organisation’s general council deferred a decision on waiving intellectual property rights to Covid-19 vaccines until October, following continued opposition from rich-world countries led by Germany and the UK.
More than 3 million people have died with coronavirus worldwide since India and South Africa proposed the waiver last October, and campaigners warn that three months’ delay could cost another million lives. Just 0.3 per cent of the estimated 4bn vaccines administered globally have been injected in the 29 lowest-income countries, home to 9 per cent of the world’s population.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said he hoped the UK’s donation would help speed up a vaccination drive which at current trends will not see the world protected until the end of 2024.
But the UK government was accused of failing to put pressure on big pharmaceutical companies to share the technology and know-how needed to end a situation described by South African president Cyril Ramaphosa as “vaccine apartheid”.
Meanwhile, Oxford University’s regius professor of medicine Sir John Bell warned that leaving the poor world unvaccinated will create a petri dish for the emergence of new variants which could bypass existing vaccines.
While the UK’s decision to send the first batch of doses abroad was welcome and “long overdue”, there was “more heavy lifting to do” in helping poorer nations put distribution systems in place, said Sir John.
“If you want variants, you’ve got the perfect storm for that, and it is not in Watford - it is in Zimbabwe and Rwanda and South Africa,” he warned.
Leaders of the major industrialised nations at the G7 summit chaired by Boris Johnson in Cornwall pledged more than 1bn doses of Covid-19 vaccine – 870m shared directly and the rest through funding to the UN-led Covax initiative.
But aid groups said the pledges failed to meet the scale of the challenge, which requires at least 11 billion jabs to protect the world. Former prime minister Gordon Brown called it an “unforgivable moral failure”.
In response to today’s UK announcement, People’s Vaccine Alliance senior health policy advisor Dr Mohga Kamal-Yanni said: “The 9 million doses the UK is sending are around 1 per cent of the doses currently needed for Africa, so it’s a bit like sending a block of cheese to a food crisis.
“All countries are struggling with new waves of the virus. While the UK and other rich countries are protected by vaccines, developing countries are not. Millions of doses are needed right now and we need to see a proper redistribution of doses going to people at risk in all countries, rather than small acts of charity.
“To vaccinate the world, all qualified manufacturers in the global South need to be enabled to produce Covid-19 vaccines, by sharing the technology and knowledge which is being kept under pharma monopoly.”
Aid campaign Global Justice Now condemned Mr Raab’s statement that some 20 per cent of the donated jabs would be distributed on a a “strategic basis”, arguing that it should not be up to the foreign secretary to decide the distribution of vaccines according to the UK’s national interests.
The group’s director Nick Dearden said: “Britain’s donations today are shamefully inadequate. And the government wants to use this as a form of diplomacy, offering many doses on the basis of their strategic interests. This is a global health crisis, not an opportunity for vain self-promotion.
“Worse still, this shoddy piece of PR went out on the very day the UK is blocking real solutions at the WTO that would allow many of these countries to produce their own vaccines in far greater quantities than donations will ever achieve.”
The WTO’s 164 member states take all decisions by consensus, so a minority of nations have been able to block the waiver despite support from the US and China.
Speaking at the two-day general council meeting in Geneva, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said there was agreement on the need to ramp up production quickly, but disagreement on how to do it. While surplus production capacity exists in countries like Senegal, Bangladesh, India, South Africa, Thailand, Morocco and Egypt, local manufacturers need access to technology and know-how from the industrialised world for local production of vaccines to be possible.
“Getting production in developing countries to a higher level so that more shots can go into more arms in Africa, Latin America and Asia, is of critical importance to everyone here,” Rockwell said.
Mr Raab said that the first batch of excess UK vaccines will be start being shipped to vulnerable nations and Commonwealth allies this week, with Indonesia receiving 600,000 doses and Jamaica 300,000. Some 817,000 are to be transported to Kenya, whose president Uhuru Kenyatta was meeting Mr Johnson at his Chequers country retreat.
“I think what it shows, as well as the domestic rollout and the importance of coming out of the lockdowns in the UK, is that global Britain is also a lifesaving force for good in the world,” said the foreign secretary.
Speaking during a visit to the Oxford Biomedica factory, which produces the AstraZeneca vaccine, Mr Raab said: “We know on the current trajectory the world will only be adequately vaccinated at 2024, at the end.
“We want to get that date back to the middle of next year, and that will make a massive difference to those countries affected.”
Romilly Greenhill, UK director of the One Campaign, said the delivery of the doses was “encouraging”.
But she added: “Sadly, we are still only scratching at the surface of this crisis, leaving millions of people dangerously exposed to a pandemic that is very far from over.”
A government spokesperson said: “The UK is proud to be playing a leading role in the global effort to create and distribute Covid-19 vaccines.
“The government supported the development of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, which is being made available at cost worldwide, and yesterday announced the first deliveries of vaccines donated from our domestic supplies overseas.”