As the UK and other developed nations begin to phase out Covid-19 restrictions, many lower-middle income countries feel left behind by the unequal distribution of vaccines.
This is despite the G7 pledging 870million vaccine doses for 2021 and 2022, which has been welcomed by international NGOs, but is still no-where near enough to protect populations from the rampant spread of the virus.
The official death toll from Covid is nearing 4 million, with almost 200 million cases. Whilst we have suffered almost 130,000 deaths in the UK, we know that the virus has affected every country on every continent. It has wrought destruction not only in poorer countries but rich countries too.
The comparison is drawn with the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed an estimated 50 million people (including approximately 250,000 in the UK).
Thankfully the development of a vaccine, as well as lockdowns and other measures, have meant that a century on, we are much better able to cope with a global pandemic.
In dealing with the pandemic, whilst governments around the world have displayed some disappointing examples of incompetent leadership and vaccine nationalism, one of the positive aspects of the global response has been some outstanding examples of collaboration and partnership, notably between government, universities and the private sector.
The AstraZeneca partnership with Oxford University, supported by the UK government, is a case in point. Together they have quickly developed a vaccine, in a matter of months, where it would normally have been expected to take five to ten years. It was sold at cost and has already provided 500 million doses in 160 countries. Where possible, AstraZeneca has enabled technology transfer, so that developing countries can quickly manufacture their own vaccines.
As the founder of my own pharma business, Morningside Pharmaceuticals, I recognise the value of working in partnership with the not-for-profit sector. We have partnered with UN organisations and global NGOs for 30 years, supplying medicines to them on the ground in Asia, Africa and elsewhere. In doing this, we know that business can be and is a force for good.
We should take pride in the fact that more than 40 million people in the UK have received at least one dose of a vaccine, but at the same time be mindful of the fact that just 5% of India has been vaccinated and, even more alarming, barely more than 1% of sub-Saharan Africa.
The Covid crisis has shown that none of us are safe until all of us are safe. The virus and its variants transmit across borders, and it’s in our practical interest to roll out vaccines worldwide.
The IMF estimates that a Covid recovery will bring a $9 trillion benefit to the global economy by 2025. Yet each country cannot operate as an island. Martin Luther King’s famous remark, from 1967, is apt for this time: “All life is inter-related. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
There is also a moral imperative to help poorer nations. I remember the amazing Live Aid concert in 1985, inspired by Sir Bob Geldof in response to famine in Africa. He captured people’s imaginations by talking about the injustice of hunger and our moral responsibility to act.
The UK is commendably one of the largest country donors to the Covax Advance Market Commitment, and has pledged that the majority of any future surplus coronavirus vaccines will go to the Covax pool, but still more can be done.
Some have estimated that one billion vaccines could be redistributed to poorer countries, without compromising the vaccine rollout of richer nations. Former PM Gordon Brown has been calling for a $30 billion a year mass vaccination programme.
Support is not just about what we can give, but about meeting the needs of the poorer countries. Sometimes countries with basic health infrastructure may not be able to receive a high volume of vaccines, or may not be able to store them at the right temperatures.
The last thing you want is medicines piling up at an airport and going to waste. Developing countries may need help implementing a vaccine rollout programme. The NHS has done an outstanding job of this in the UK and has valuable lessons to offer other countries.
The developed nations of the world now have a golden opportunity to show global solidarity and do more. History will judge whether they were able to put politics and internal self-interest aside to truly defeat Covid on a global scale.