Vaccine inequity still awaiting an answer

Reuters file photo
Officials look at the boxes of AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines as the country receives its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines under the COVAX scheme in Cote d’voire on Feb. 26.

GENEVA / BEIJING — Japan and other nations pledged at a global online summit to alleviate inequities between advanced and developing countries in the distribution of coronavirus vaccines.

It was a crucial move at a time when, with progress slow as countries such as the United States focus more on vaccinating their own populations, China is expanding its influence through “vaccine diplomacy.”

The Japanese government and Gavi, an international vaccine alliance, cohosted Wednesday’s “vaccine summit,” officially known as the Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment Summit, where a shared sense of urgency was expressed over severe vaccine inequity — just 10 nations have administered about 75% of all coronavirus vaccinations.

COVAX, an international framework for the joint purchase and distribution of vaccines, said it had dispersed more than 77 million doses to 127 nations and regions as of the end of May. However, it forecasts a shortfall of 190 million doses by the end of June due to the recent surge in India, which had been expected to be a major vaccine provider.

“The shortfall in Africa is particularly acute,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said at the summit. “We must redouble our efforts.”

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom added bluntly, “Investing in COVAX is not charity.”

At a press conference ahead of the summit on Tuesday, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said that if nations and other entities invested a total of $50 billion in vaccine distribution and other measures to end the pandemic, it would generate an estimated $9 trillion gain in economic activity by 2025.

Georgieva raised two key points on the need to resolve unequal access to vaccines. First, even if nations with high vaccination rates break free of the crisis, countries with low rates will be left further behind, thus delaying the overall recovery of the global economy. And second, if the pandemic is not halted simultaneously around the world, it leaves open the risk of variants emerging against which vaccines are not effective.

Small distribution amounts

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, speaking during the summit, also urged global cooperation to get more people vaccinated. In May, the United States announced a plan to supply 80 million vaccine doses to help countries battling the pandemic.

However, the amount to be provided other countries is undeniably small in comparison with the high pace of domestic vaccination, which has resulted in about 300 million doses so far. Details of the U.S. plan, such as which nations will receive the vaccines, also remain unclear.

In some parts of the European Union, such as Belgium and Sweden, there has been a noticeable move to provide vaccines manufactured by AstraZeneca PLC — which has often been avoided following revelations it can cause blood clots — to developing nations.

China flexes its muscles

Amid all this, China has already provided about 300 million doses of its domestically manufactured vaccine, either free or for a price. Beijing’s “vaccine diplomacy” often appears to have political strings attached, as China has taken steps that could be perceived as pressing some Central and South American nations to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Providing vaccines is by no means solely a gesture of cooperation.

Even so, China’s influence is expanding. At the end of May, a subsidiary of Chinese biopharmaceutical giant Sinovac Biotech Ltd. revealed it intends to establish a vaccine research and development center with the four other BRICS — a grouping of major emerging countries with Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa — to jointly research and produce vaccines.

“Major vaccine-developing and producing countries need to take up their responsibility,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said at an international conference in late May. “We will provide more vaccines to developing countries in urgent need.”

Japan to use cash, logistics to boost intl virus aid

Japan aims to make up ground lost to China and other nations in the field of “vaccine diplomacy” by providing funds and also helping transport vaccines at low temperatures. Support for “cold chain” infrastructure is meant to enable the shipment vaccines to locations where they will be administered while keeping them cold.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged to provide an additional $800 million to the COVAX global mechanism for equitable access to coronavirus vaccines at Wednesday’s Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment Summit.

During his speech, Suga said he wanted to deliver the vaccines, which he called a “ray of hope,” to as many people as possible “and as early as possible throughout the world in an equitable manner.”

As COVAX is a neutral framework led by the World Health Organization and other international bodies, it can give developing countries peace of mind. “Even if they receive this favor now, they won’t become subject to onerous demands later,” senior Foreign Ministry official said.

Before hosting the summit meeting, the Japanese government had already pledged to provide $200 million to COVAX. In mid-May, the government decided to provide an additional $700 million, putting it on about par with Germany, the second-highest donor after the United States. However, contributions from other nations were lower than anticipated, so the government decided immediately before the summit to inject another $100 million to reach the overall target of $8.3 billion.

A summit meeting among leaders of the Group of Seven major economies will be held in Britain from June 11. Suga expects Japan to lead discussions on the vaccine issue at the G7 summit by highlighting its COVAX contribution.

Japan’s cold chain support will include the free provision of cold storage boxes and vehicles that can transport vaccines at the cold temperatures they require.

The government also plans to directly give vaccines to Taiwan and other recipients. However, the vaccination rollout in Japan has only just gone into full swing, and Japan’s own vaccination rate remains among the lowest of advanced nations.

One government official said, “Can we really gain the understanding of the public when vaccination efforts in Japan itself are making slow progress?”