The G7’s announcement that it will donate 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries has largely been met with disappointment. Leaving aside that the commitment was actually only to an extra 870 million doses (the 1 billion figure includes commitments made earlier in the year), this will only allow for 500 million people to be vaccinated, half of those in 2021 and the rest next year.
This is despite the G7 calling for efforts to end the pandemic in 2022, and acknowledging that this will require vaccinating most of the world’s population. The World Health Organization has said that this will take 11 billion doses. By any standard, the G7’s announcement represents a massive failure of ambition and leadership. There is a clear gap between rhetoric and reality.
That said, providing doses is not the only contribution G7 countries are making towards the global vaccination campaign. They’ve committed to building partnerships to increase vaccine production capacity, to maintaining research funding for new vaccines to protect against emerging variants and to reducing the time needed to approve vaccines. They will also continue working to strengthen healthcare systems around the world, so that they can cope better with the effect of COVID-19.
Nevertheless, the overall plan lacks credibility and will make a very small impact on ending the pandemic, the outgoing UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs said. The G7 countries have done what they think is enough to assuage concerns over lack of action. But it’s far from convincing.
Won’t somebody think of the children?
Of course, it was never going to be easy for these governments to rapidly increase their vaccine commitments when being pressured to do more in their own countries. The commitment of 1 billion doses has been built around the G7 countries needing to maintain their own vaccination campaigns. Moving beyond that would, for most, require slowing down their domestic rollout.
This would be politically difficult. An argument is already brewing in the UK, for example, over whether to vaccinate children. Many advocating for speeding up the global vaccination campaign would argue that those overseas should take precedence over British kids, given children are significantly less likely to get seriously ill and also less likely to transmit the virus.
On the other hand, such a position would probably anger a powerful coalition of teachers’ unions, parents and media. It would only take a few tragic cases of serious illness in children for public opinion to swing firmly behind restricting vaccine exports.
A brave government would nevertheless act in the global interest, not least because it would be in its own interest too. Suppressing outbreaks overseas would reduce the chance of concerning new variants emerging and spreading. The International Monetary Fund also estimates that the US$50 billion (£36 billion) cost of rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to 60% of the world’s population by mid-2022 would be dwarfed by the US$9 trillion in increased global output that would result, with benefits spread across poor, emerging and rich economies.
But governments – whether G7 or others – cannot simply ignore public sentiment.
A patently good idea
The G7 has also been criticised for not doing more to waive intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines and allow for compulsory licences to be issued. These are licences issued by governments to allow businesses in a country to make products, such as vaccines, without the consent of the patent holders.
Proponents of an IP waiver say it will allow for more COVID-19 vaccine doses to be produced and lower costs for poorer countries. Oxfam has been campaigning for such an approach, and presidents Biden and Macron both indicated support ahead of the June summit.
In theory, governments have always been able to issue compulsory licences during health emergencies. But as has happened with HIV drugs in the past, pharmaceutical companies – backed by the governments of countries in which they are based – have been able to limit their use. A strong commitment from the G7, then, may have helped avoid this with COVID-19 vaccines.
But the assumption that this would see a quick scaling-up of the global vaccination campaign feels optimistic. Production is limited by shortages of vital ingredients and production capacity. The AstraZeneca model of expanding not-for-profit vaccine production through regional partnerships with other pharmaceutical companies could be a more effective way to meet the immediate need. It has worked with over 20 partners while maintaining strict quality control.
Addressing the problems of IP protection on essential drugs is critical – but perhaps it is a solution for future health crises rather than this one.
A suitable forum for global leadership?
The failure of the G7 to provide a substantial commitment to global vaccination highlights another worrying aspect of the forum. Many of the issues it’s been grappling with in recent years are highly complex and difficult to produce global agreements on.
All agree, for example, on the threat of the climate emergency, but finding consensus on what needs to be done has been hard. Similarly, members have found it hard to reach a consensus on how to respond to the geopolitical challenges posed by Russia, China and others.
But on global vaccination there shouldn’t really be varying views: rolling out a programme as quickly and comprehensively as possible is good for everyone. Vaccinating the world is a rare conjunction of moral purpose and self-interest. It’s critical for preventing a public health catastrophe in poorer regions of the world, stopping new variants appearing that threaten the effectiveness of existing vaccines, and boosting the global economy and limiting poverty and inequality.
Not every G7 summit can lead to massive global change. But if the G7 cannot provide global leadership at a time when it’s so needed, and is so narrow and limited in its ambitions and promises, what exactly is it for? Its failure reminds us all that broad-based global solidarity is urgently needed to address this generation’s defining crisis moment.
Michael Jennings is affiliated with Fabian Society.