Biarritz, Quebec, Sicily, Shima, and Bavaria. Only the most obsessive followers of politics might recognise these locations as the five most recent places to host the annual G7 summit. If they are remembered at all, G7 gatherings are usually notable only for the leaders’ photo calls – and not for any big decisions made.
But as the world’s richest countries prepare to gather again on Friday, one monumental decision can save Carbis Bay in Cornwall from being added to the list of long-forgotten G7 meetings. Leaders this weekend have a historic opportunity to stop Covid dead in its tracks, but they will only do so if they turn Boris Johnson’s promise to mass vaccinate the world into a concrete plan.
The challenge is daunting. While 60 per cent of UK adults – and 50 per cent of Americans – have been vaccinated already, only 2 per cent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa have had their first shot and at the latest count only 0.2 per cent have been fully immunised. Not surprisingly the bishop of Cape Town has complained of a “vaccine apartheid” – the rich who will be vaccinated and the poor who will go without – and it is the failure to mass vaccinate worldwide even when we have had a vaccine available for six months that is one of the reasons why, since December, 2.25 million people worldwide have lost their lives, a far greater death tally than in 2020.
And when last weekend Johnson said that the G7 would make the eradication of Covid “the single greatest feat in medical history”, and pledged “to vaccinate the world by the end of 2022”, he left unanswered the biggest question of all: who pays?
Mass vaccination could be achieved through a virtuous circle which starts with guaranteed global funding and pooled purchasing that leads to the building of new manufacturing capacity and, in turn, a pipeline for vaccine production in every continent. But sadly, if recent G7 meetings are anything to go by, the end result could be a vicious circle where the world’s failure to underwrite the costs slows production and leaves millions struggling to secure the injections they need.
Fortunately, there is a global body ready and waiting to organise mass vaccination: ACT-A, the unique international partnership, which, with its vaccination arm, Covax, provides the best vehicle for the global pre-ordering and equitable distribution of vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics. They have the machinery in place to help the 92 poorest countries not just with vaccination but with the testing and protective equipment that countries urgently need while they wait for their full quota of vaccines.
But there is no escape from the reality: there is a huge financing gap that, after months of fundraising, has still to be filled. A further $16bn is needed this year and upwards of $30bn next year if we are to immunise and protect those who are now at greatest risk.
Of course, temporarily waiving the patents of the life-saving vaccines will cut the costs of vaccines, and “dose sharing” – rich countries donating their excess vaccines to Covax, which can then allocate them on the basis of need – has a role to play. But dose sharing is not enough. Even if the G7 volunteered one billion doses – which is well within what they are able to offer – we would fall far short of the total 11 billion doses needed to meet the Johnson mass vaccination plan.
Thankfully, on the table for Friday is a plan painstakingly brought together by the leaders of Norway and South Africa. They want the G7 to agree to share the full cost of vaccines and health protection between G7 members and other wealthy countries. Their formula for doing so takes into account each country’s income, wealth, and the differential benefits they receive from the reopening of the world economy. Based on ability to pay, the G7 attendees would underwrite 67 per cent of the costs. America would pay 27 per cent of the costs; Europe 22 per cent; the UK 5 per cent; Japan 6 per cent and Canada, Korea and Australia 2 per cent each. The other G20 countries – including China and Russia – and the oil states would be asked to cover the rest.
Adopting the burden sharing plan would activate at a global level what was operationalised with military precision in Britain and America, when last year they underwrote the costs of pre-ordering vaccines for themselves. And burden sharing – not just a dose-sharing formula – is the best way forward because global health needs more than a one-off crisis response to our emergency. We not only need to fund pandemic preparedness but will almost certainly need to generate anti-Covid vaccines for years to come.
But vaccinating the world, the G7 should be told, is not just an act of compassion: it is an act of self-interest too. Funding vaccination is like taking out the best insurance policy in the world. The IMF estimates the returns from vaccination will reach $9 trillion by 2025 in increased trade and economic activity as the world gets back to normal, and Save the Children suggests the bills each G7 county pays for mass vaccination will be repaid at least 30 times over.
But there is, in the words of Martin Luther King, “such a thing as being too late”. We need a decision as soon as Friday, if we are to halt the current worldwide rate of 10,000 Covid-related deaths a day.
Of course, critics of such a bold plan will say that charity begin and ends at home, but an opinion poll this week showed that more than 70 per cent of people across the G7 – including 75 per cent of US citizens and 79 per cent in the UK – supported their leaders paying their share of the cost of vaccinating the world. And on Friday, G7 leaders should remind themselves of an even bigger truth: that multiple mutations are intensifying the race between virus and vaccine and none of us are safe anywhere until all of us are safe everywhere.
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