The Government must speed up Covid vaccine donations to developing countries or risk causing “irreparable damage” to both global health security and Britain’s reputation, a committee of MPs has warned.
In a report released on Thursday, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said “glaring inequality” in access to vaccines risked allowing new variants to spread in developing countries.
The report also warned that Russia and China were attempting to exploit that inequality to “undermine the West and expand their influence by donating and selling vaccines”.
Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat said: “The rapid creation of an effective vaccine is a remarkable achievement for international cooperation and has saved a huge number of lives.
“However, glaring inequalities in vaccine access mean that lower-income countries have been left far behind. Bolstering vaccination rates in these countries is not only a moral imperative but will benefit us all by slowing the spread of a deadly disease.
“The UK cannot allow authoritarian states, such as Russia and China, to exploit the shortfall in vaccine supply to gain leverage over other countries.”
So far, the UK has donated 10.3 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to developing countries and has promised to donate 100 million doses by June 2022.
But while richer countries have prioritised vaccinating their own populations, inoculation rates in the developing world remain extremely low with barely 1% of people having received even one dose.
The Foreign Affairs Committee said: “We welcome the UK’s commitment to donate 100 million vaccines in the year to June 2022. However, this target falls far short of what is needed to meet the health challenge and protect British nationals from further outbreaks and variants, let alone meet our moral duty.”
In its report, the committee also criticised the Government’s decision to reduce aid spending from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%, which has seen contributions to global health programmes slashed, and was described by Mr Tugendhat as “a body blow to those on the frontline fighting disease”.
These cuts included a 50% fall in funding to health research in low and middle-income countries and a 90% reduction in funding for neglected tropical diseases, which the World Health Organisation has warned could cause between 20,000 and 30,000 deaths worldwide.
The committee added: “Cutting spending on important medical research and development programmes is a dangerous false economy, and could endanger Global Britain’s reputation as a science superpower.”
A Government spokesperson said: “The UK is a global leader in delivering Covid vaccines to the most vulnerable countries around the world, including through the Prime Minister’s pledge to donate 100 million vaccine doses overseas by June next year.
“The UK Government’s funding of the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has enabled over a billion doses to be delivered at a non-profit price around the world, and as one of the first and largest donors the UK helped establish the Covax scheme to ensure equal access to doses for all globally.”