Look around the UK and life is returning to normal. Groups of friends gather in restaurants. We can now hug loved ones and sip beer in pubs. But as we welcome old comforts, a crisis is intensifying beyond our borders that threatens any chance of recovery here and abroad. The global burden of COVID-19 deaths has shifted from high-income to lower-income countries, and millions of lives are in danger. We can stop a catastrophe, but only if we provide access to vaccines to the whole world. That effort needs more funding and sharing of vaccines, but it also needs leadership — leadership the UK, after its stellar vaccine success, and as G7 President, is well placed to provide.
The UK vaccine roll-out and end of lockdown give an impression of a fading crisis, but this is an illusion. We have already seen how new variants can prolong the pandemic at home. And across the world, poorer nations are struggling. Inadequate vaccine access has caused surges in cases and deaths over the past months. While there are early signs that India may be starting to recover from the devastating surge that peaked in early May, other countries across the region continue to see infections and deaths climb. Cases remain high across South America, and leaders in Africa have expressed concern about an India-like scenario given low vaccination rates.
Last year our analysis suggested that if the first two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines went only to wealthy countries many more would die than if they were given out fairly. That is now a reality. Of the more than 1.8 billion shots injected, 85 percent went to higher income countries, and only 0.3 percent to the 29 lowest-income countries. There has been a spike in daily COVID-19 mortality rates in the developing world in recent months, with rates plummeting in high-income countries. And the gulf in access is increasing. As some wealthy countries offer vaccines to 12-year-olds, unvaccinated health workers in poor countries are risking their lives on the front line.
To help address this inequity the Gates Foundation today pledged $50 million to both the COVAX Advanced Market Commitment (AMC) and to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to support delivery of vaccines to lower income countries.
But funding is only part of the puzzle. Thanks to COVAX, we saw vaccines arrive in lower-income countries just 12 weeks after high-income countries, but production constraints, vaccine nationalism, and new variants have meant that that early progress has stalled.
Early on, many richer nations secured access to extra COVID-19 vaccine doses as a precaution. Now, wealthier countries are sitting on doses that they won’t need. In fact, our analysis has revealed that wealthy countries could donate up to one billion excess doses in 2021 without compromising their own vaccine programs. Our message to all countries with excess doses is simple - start sharing today. The global recovery depends on it.
COVID-19 has shown that none of us are safe until all of us are safe. By sharing doses now with the world’s poorest people, we can help to bring the virus under control and reduce the chance of variants emerging that could harm progress at home. In collaboration with other organisations working on global health issues, our “Build A Bigger Bubble” campaign calls on everyone to demonstrate their support for the UK continuing to lead the global effort to tackle COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. Only by building a protective bubble around the whole world can everyone, everywhere, get back to doing the things we’ve missed during the pandemic.
At the Gates Foundation we have always said that the best case for fair access is the moral one: where you live should not determine whether you live. But in today’s connected world, national health is global health. Doing everything we can to accelerate vaccine access around the world isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do.
From the beginning of the pandemic the UK has been one of the most vocal and effective advocates for the need to inoculate the world. Next week the G7 arrives in Cornwall. World leaders face a choice: invest in saving lives by dealing with the cause of the pandemic everywhere, now, or risk a continuation and escalation of this horrific pandemic.
Joe Cerrell is managing director of the Gates Foundation