Big pharmaceutical companies and leaders of leading economies of the world faced up on Friday to the startling global imbalance in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and made big pledges to up supplies of cut-price vaccines to poorer regions.
Lavishly-funded mass inoculation campaigns are helping some wealthy nations slash infections, but few shots have reached poorer nations where the virus is still raging, sometimes uncontrollably, drawing accusations of “vaccine apartheid”.
More than 80 percent of the first billion shots went to rich countries, compared with just 0.2 percent for low-income nations, philanthropist Bill Gates told Friday’s special Group of 20 summit, which focused on the global health crisis.
“If we do not close this immense gap, more people will die needlessly. There are two immediate actions countries can take: share dollars and doses,” he said.
The virtual summit was jointly hosted by G20 president Italy and the European Union’s executive arm and included 20 heads of state and government and 12 international organisations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), African Union, WTO and the World Bank.
It was to call for voluntary licensing and technology transfers to boost vaccine production, but sidestep a push from the United States and other nations to waive valuable patents, a joint declaration seen by the Reuters news agency showed.
Vaccine manufacturers offer cheap shots
Several leading vaccine producers made pledges on Friday, seemingly aimed at redressing the global imbalance.
Pfizer and BioNTech said they would make one billion cut-price doses available this year to poorer nations.
Another one billion vaccines would be provided next year, Pfizer boss Albert Bourla told the summit.
Moderna chief executive Stephane Bancel said the American company would make “up to 95 million doses” available at cost or discount to poorer nations for 2021 and “up to 900 million” for 2022, including through the COVAX vaccine-sharing programme.
Johnson & Johnson promised 200 million doses of its shot to COVAX, which is co-led by the WHO.
“As we prepare for the next pandemic, our priority must be to ensure that we all overcome the current one together. We must vaccinate the world, and do it fast,” said Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
China pledges billions
China’s President Xi Jinping pledged $3bn in aid over the next three years to help developing countries recover from the pandemic and proposed setting up an international forum to promote fair distribution of vaccines.
US President Joe Biden was not among the speakers.
His administration has backed calls from developing countries to waive patents for COVID-19 vaccines, in the hope that would boost production and allow for more equitable distribution.
However, the final declaration seen by Reuters did not mention such a mechanism.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said existing global agreements already allowed countries to force companies to share their licences in an emergency.
She added that the EU will propose to make use of those clauses, adding that Europe would donate at least 100 million doses to poorer nations by the end of the year, including 30 million each from France and Germany.
No solution to funding shortfall
In their declaration, the world leaders noted the importance of the so-called ACT-Accelerator, a WHO tool to distribute COVID-19 vaccines, drugs and tests across the world.
However, dashing initial expectations, the declaration did not include a clear commitment to fully fund the programme, which is still $19bn short.
Leaders agreed that one option to help poorer nations was sharing vaccines that wealthy countries have already purchased.
However, there were no firm commitments on this in the final text.
The COVAX programme, which is dedicated to equitable global vaccine distribution, was mentioned as one option for providing donated doses to countries.