With the government pressing ahead with a “big bang” unlocking of all restrictions later this month, it is tempting to think that we’re over the worst. It is certainly true that, in the UK, the vaccines have significantly weakened the link between getting the virus and getting very seriously ill. Around the world, however, this just isn’t the case.
Three quarters of the world’s population are yet to receive a single vaccine dose. And in low income countries that figure is an astonishing 99 per cent. There are around 350,000 new cases worldwide every day. And more than 50,000 people have died from the virus during the past week.
It is a crude measure, but you can see how effective the vaccines are when you consider that we’ve had 160,000 cases in the UK in the last week but only 77 deaths – 0.05 per cent of cases. Across the world, that figure rises to 2.3 per cent of cases. That is similar to the ratio we saw in the UK at the height of the first wave. So, in truth, the fight against Covid has only just begun and, globally, we are losing it.
To win this battle, we need to speed up the manufacturing and distribution of vaccines across the world and to low income countries in particular. The good news is that the mechanisms are in place to allow that. We just need leadership and determination from those of us lucky enough to live in higher income nations. So what can we do?
Firstly, continue supporting the Covax initiative (the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access scheme, overseen by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the World Health Organization). This is the most effective way of getting vaccines to countries who need it the most. It has already delivered over 70 million doses to 126 countries.
Covax’s original aim was to deliver two billion doses of vaccines worldwide in 2021, and 1.8 billion doses to 92 lower income economies by early 2022. These are challenging aims, but still achievable. The recent G7 announcement was welcome – but, in reality, a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed. So we must continue pressing our government to increase its donations through this programme.
Secondly, we need to make sure countries are ready to receive vaccines. More financing needs to be made available for appropriate storage and distribution infrastructure. This should include training for healthcare workers on how to deliver the vaccines safely.
Thirdly, we must do what we can to build up local and regional vaccine manufacturing capabilities. In the long run, relying on vaccine donations is not sustainable. More should be done to support initiatives like the WHO’s technology transfer hubs. These will provide support, including training, to scale up production and access to vaccines and make countries self-sufficient.
Finally, we need a dedicated campaign to overcome vaccine hesitancy. We have seen pockets of this in the UK, but suspicions are much higher in other countries so we need to share what we have learned about overcoming these feelings with other nations.
These actions are, in many cases, tried and tested – and, indeed, already happening. But we need to put rocket boosters under them. Not only will this save many lives across the world, it will also directly benefit us in the UK.
Protecting millions around the globe will reduce the chances of new variants developing, open up international trade and travel, and help us all get back to normal. Focusing entirely on our own battle with the virus makes no sense. We have to be internationally minded.
A government that is pressing ahead with cuts to the international aid budget in the face of such a global challenge has a lot of ground to make up. For all our sakes, I hope it does.
The Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP is chair of the Commons Health and Social Care Committee and was Health Secretary from 2012 to 2018