When will UK have a vaccine ‘surplus’?

‘No point’ inoculating Britain without helping other countries, Johnson says

Jon Sharman
Friday 19 February 2021 18:22 GMT
UK Covid-19 vaccinations: Latest figures

Boris Johnson is facing calls to release some of the UK’s coronavirus vaccine stock to poorer countries immediately.

The PM told a virtual meeting of G7 leaders on Friday that Britain would send the majority of its surplus jabs to Covax, the international vaccine body led by the World Health Organisation and others.

But the government has not defined what it means by “surplus” or said when it might begin those shipments. The UK has ordered some 400 million doses of various vaccines, more than enough to inoculate the entire population.

Charities and experts have weighed in on when they believe Westminster should approve the Covax distribution, amid renewed warnings against so-called vaccine nationalism.

Jeremy Farrar, the head of the Wellcome Trust and a member of Sage, told the British Medical Journal: “Once the UK has vaccinated our most vulnerable communities and healthcare workers we should make vaccines available to other countries.”

Doing so might help avoid another huge blow to the economy and public health, he said, saying the move would be in Britain’s “enlightened self-interest, as well as the right ethical thing to do”.

Dr Sharifah Sekalala, of Warwick Law School, said the prime minister’s announcement did not go far enough.

She said: “The idea of a surplus means that we are once again waiting to vaccinate our populations before thinking about vaccinating the rest of the world. This is deeply problematic because this is a global crisis and we will not be safe against variants unless we are all vaccinated.

“All these countries have obligations to assist developing countries in [curbing] the spread of infectious disease. This is a grand bargain that all countries make in order to ensure that we are all safe.”

In his address to the G7, Mr Johnson did say that “there is no point in us vaccinating our individual populations – we’ve got to make sure the whole world is vaccinated because this is a global pandemic”, but the timescale for his plan remains unclear, beyond what a government press release called “later this year”.

An Ipsos Mori poll released on Friday found that only one-fifth of Britons (19 per cent) were against redistributing surplus vaccines “when the country has enough doses ... to meet the immediate needs of protecting the population”, compared to an average of 37 per cent globally. Sixty-nine per cent were in favour of sharing, pollsters found.

However, Unicef has warned that vaccine redistribution to poor countries cannot wait until richer nations have been fully inoculated. Its UK advocacy director, Joanna Rey, said it was “essential that this distribution happens as soon as possible”.

Medecins sans Frontieres pointed the finger at manufacturers and added in a Twitter thread that Britain should begin sharing its jabs immediately. “It shouldn’t be a choice between access for people in the UK or access for people elsewhere,” the organisation said.

“We can maximise supplies for all if pharma companies shared the vaccine recipe/knowhow with other manufacturers who could produce these products without intellectual property barriers.”

Oxfam made a similar comment, saying: “If the UK and other G7 countries want to avoid charges of vaccine hypocrisy, they must act quicker to ensure poorer countries get vaccines and stop defending pharmaceutical corporations’ profits.”

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