Ahead of the G7 summit in June, Boris Johnson celebrated the success of his government’s Covid vaccination programme – almost all British adults have now received a dose – and pledged 100 million surplus doses to “those who need them”.
There’s no shortage of candidates: only two per cent of people in the world’s poorest nations have been jabbed. But when we tried to find out where Johnson’s pledged donations went, we came up empty.
Unicef, which provides the best available tracker of donations against deliveries, told us that they didn’t include Johnson’s pledge because he didn’t identify a recipient for the doses and cautioned that, because they rely on publicly available data, “such as media articles,” their monitor “may not provide an accurate picture of vaccines donated”.
As it stands, there is no comprehensive tracker of vaccine donation flows. Everywhere we looked, we found that delivery data is delayed, incomplete or absent. Opacity on this, the single most important global supply crisis we face, is a barrier to ending the pandemic.
The reasons are multiple. The first is that leaders of the wealthiest nations, which procured most of the world’s vaccine supply, are able to make grand rhetorical commitments to global action, only to rely on ambiguous data to hide the extent and effect of the shortfall when they underdeliver.
Look more closely at Johnson’s pledge: of his 100 million doses, he said that just five million will have arrived by the end of September. This delay will prove disastrous. At the time of the summit, the highly transmissible Delta variant was yet to become the most dominant strain in Africa. The continent, which up to June had yet to receive a single dose produced in a European factory, is now home to the fastest growing death rates in the world.
Second, countries awaiting vaccines are unable to plan for their delivery. In Namibia, which has the highest Covid death rate in the world, the health ministry turned people away from inoculation centres because of a delay in the arrival of doses. Some Namibians would have struggled to pay for their journey to a centre and wouldn’t return for a new appointment.
Third, people in developing countries rely on data transparency from donors, more than from their own governments, to help bring about effective policy. Tunisia, whose death rate is second to Namibia’s and is racked by mass violent protests against the government’s pandemic response, is in urgent need of vaccines and has received a lot of international aid. But, as one Tunisian told Deutsche Welle, “it is not clear what was actually provided. There’s an information crisis, too, and this generates rumors and increases suspicions.”
The main problem with data ambiguity, though, is that it makes the battle of vaccines against variants far harder to fight. It renders low-income countries, where cases are soaring for want of vaccines, as petri dishes for new variants to emerge – ones that will find their way back to advanced economies.
Why, then, can we still not see where doses are arriving and when? There are technical issues: donations are made through a mixture of mechanisms, from bilateral agreements to multilateral intermediaries. Export data comes with long lags. Some commitments are made in units of currency and others in doses. But technical hurdles can be overcome with some political will.
G7 governments are reluctant to be more transparent with their pledges, or to accelerate them, because they may need spare doses for children or for booster shorts later in the year. In this respect, a vagueness about numbers and timelines is helpful.
Another issue is that nativist and populist politicians, like some in the UK government, think there’s little to be gained in championing a fairer, more open global distribution of vaccines when, domestically, their own citizens are still getting ill. But variants don’t respect national borders. The emergency is global and needs a transparent, international response.
A coalition including the World Bank, the IMF and the WHO say they’re working on a comprehensive tracker of vaccine deliveries. It’s long overdue. Tortoise is developing our own, with what information is available.
Demanding the vastly greater donations that are required from the G20 in October should start with, at the very least, an understanding of precisely how far short they have fallen.
We need to act urgently
Head to The Arms Race page for links so you can donate vaccine doses, and write to your MP, ahead of the G20 summit in October. Please share these pieces with your friends and ask them to help. The clock is ticking. Thank you.