As the coronavirus pandemic continues to cleave the world into the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, leaders of the world’s 20 wealthiest nations will meet later this week to discuss how to address this deep divide.
Concerns over the pandemic are likely to overshadow the first in-person gathering of G-20 leaders since 2019, and vaccine equity is a top issue. The summit starts Saturday, in Rome.
U.S. President Joe Biden claims the United States, the world’s richest nation, is also the “world’s arsenal of vaccines.” The sheer number of promised U.S. vaccine-dose donations -- 1.1 billion of them -- dwarfs that of other nations.
However, that is not nearly enough, health advocates say. A fraction of those promised vaccines have been actually delivered, and a new study by science analytics company Airfinity found that G-20 countries have received 15 times more COVID-19 vaccine doses per capita than countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
World leaders have indicated they are willing to do more, together. In September, G-20 ministers unanimously signed the Rome Pact, which reaffirmed the World Health Organization’s objective of vaccinating 40% of the global population by 2021.
Critics are quick to point out, though, that that document made no specific commitments. Activists and aid groups are urging the G-20 nations to make tangible promises, to accelerate delivery schedules and to be more generous — and not just with the actual vials of vaccine, but with the technology behind them, and the tools needed to get them into arms.
Advocates argue this is not just a problem for the have-nots, that it hurts everyone.
“Vaccine inequity is not just holding the poorest countries back — it is holding the world back,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “As leaders meet to set priorities for the next phase of the COVID-19 response, it is vital they remember that, in the COVID vaccine race, we either win together, or we lose together.”
‘The arsenal of vaccines’
The White House says it is already donating more vaccines than any other country, and U.S. officials have deflected criticism over authorities’ decision to greenlight booster shots for Americans when so many across the world have yet to get a first shot.
“Our view continues to be that we can do both and it’s a false choice,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last month. “Our view also continues to be that, frankly, the rest of the world needs to step up and do more.”
Nathalie Ernoult, head of advocacy for Doctors Without Borders’ Access campaign, said the United States can do much more than just pledging donations.
“The U.S. is doing, already, a lot,” she told VOA via Skype. “But they could do even more because their power is quite important and massive — in particular, not only for sharing doses, but also in dealing with pharmaceutical companies to share the technology with a number of manufacturing companies that are in different locations in different regions, and who could produce these vaccines to make sure that they would be also in a position to deliver them to the countries that are part of these regional bodies. And I think, you know, in that respect, actually very little has happened.”
A new report by anti-poverty group the ONE Campaign calculated that, of the more than 657 million vaccine doses pledged by G-20 countries, about 44% have been delivered. Tom Hart, the organization's acting CEO, said that is not fast enough. At this pace, he said, it would take more than a decade for low-income countries to reach their vaccination target of 70% of the population.
“The U.S. is far and above the world leader in global vaccination efforts, and most recently, taking steps to ensure that the African Union is at the front of the line to purchase doses directly from manufacturers,” he said. “These are significant steps that will save lives and help end the pandemic sooner. But, the reality is wealthy countries as a whole aren’t meeting the challenge at hand.”
Harder, better, faster, stronger
So what can the most powerful people in the world do?
For one, said Hart, they can speed up delivery by nudging moribund supply chains into action.
“We need to turn 18 months of slow progress into bold measures and fulfilled commitments,” he said. “That means urgently getting doses in arms in low-income countries and freeing up all available financial resources for a sustainable economic recovery.”
They can also clear their stockpiles, Ernoult said.
“High-income countries have a number of doses in excess, about 800 million,” she said. “And what we would like to see them to clearly set up a schedule to provide these doses to COVAX for the countries in a transparent way, with a very clear timetable of when these doses will be shared with the country so that, also, the recipient countries will be in a position to organize themselves to receive these doses.”
Both advocates said the United States should use its power to pressure the corporations to loosen their grip over the recipe for these vaccines. That is something the White House has used its clout to attempt with American drugmaker Moderna, Psaki said last week.
“We absolutely want that to happen, but my understanding is also that the U.S. government does not have the ability to compel Moderna to take certain actions,” she said.
The heads of state launch their meeting Saturday.