“The United States is providing these half billion doses with no strings attached – no strings attached,” said Mr Biden in a clear signal that the US was at long last entering the great vaccine diplomacy game.
Canada is expected to make a similar pledge and others including France, Germany, Italy and Spain have all promised to share stocks.
But while the headline numbers sound impressive, vaccine exports from China – which currently account for more than the rest of the world combined, at more than 323m – still dominate.
And the small print on the western pledges may not bode well for bridging the gap in Covax’s short term supply. The UK will only donate 25m doses before Christmas and, while US exports will start in August, only 200m of its shots will arrive with Covax this year.
As things stand today, more people have been vaccinated in Cornwall than in the world’s 22 poorest nations combined.
“What the world needs is vaccines now, not later this year,” says Alex Harris, director of government relations at Wellcome. “The new US and UK commitments are a step in the right direction, but they don’t go far enough, fast enough.”
Covax has so far distributed 82m vaccine shots to 129 countries and still hopes to hit the 1.3 billion mark by the year end. It has enough funding and its own supply agreements in place – many of which will come on stream in the third and fourth quarters of the year – but is facing a shortfall of 190m vaccines by the end of June because of supply constraints.
The scheme has been hard hit by India’s vaccine export bans, as the Serum Institute of India (SII) had been set to provide two-thirds of supply in the first half of this year. That delay has hit Africa hard, which was set to get almost all its shots from SII.
The World Health Organization’s Africa office warned this week that 90 per cent of countries across the continent are set to miss targets to vaccinate 10 per cent of their population by September. Africa alone – where cases rose by 25 per cent last week – would need 225m shots to fill the gap.
“We’re creating a ‘variant rave’ by delaying vaccinations, even as we see the surge in Africa,” says Dr Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the Africa Union Vaccine Delivery Alliance. “The G7 needs to go further in their ambition and further in their scope. Low and middle income countries need vaccines now, not in three months, not next year.”
According to Joanna Rea, head of advocacy at Unicef UK, recent analysis suggests G7 countries “could commit to sharing 20 per cent of available doses between June and August without having a significant disruption on domestic rollout efforts.”
This would be equivalent to 54m shots from America, and 14m from the UK. Collectively, it would mean 153m doses could be available from G7 countries now, which would help stem the substantial shortfall curtaining Covax.
On Friday, Airfinity – which tracks vaccine production and supply worldwide – added that the 1bn shots set to be promised from G7 countries would increase currently available supply to low and lower middle income countries by almost 50 per cent.
“However, this addition is still not sufficient to provide these countries with enough doses to fully vaccinate 75 per cent of their populations, potentially leaving them vulnerable and requiring additional doses from elsewhere,” the firm added.