G-7’s 1 billion pledge for new vaccine doses comes up short

President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden walks with national security advisor Jake Sullivan, right, as he arrives for the final session at the G-7 summit in Carbis Bay, England on Sunday, June 13, 2021. Image Credit: NYT

The Group of Seven fell short on fulfilling a pledge of 1 billion additional vaccine doses it will donate to developing nations, revealing gaps in the bloc between vaccine haves and have-nots.

The world leaders made the 1-billion-shot pledge on Sunday – and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the G-7 would collectively distribute 2.3 billion vaccine doses to developing countries by next year.

“Recognizing that ending the pandemic in 2022 will require vaccinating at least 60% of the global population, we will intensify our action to save lives,” the leaders said in their final communique from the G-7 summit in the coastal Cornwall region of the UK.

But Merkel’s larger figure includes a much wider array of contributions already offered, as well future exports, according to a European official.

So far, the G-7 countries have promised 613 million truly new doses – including some funded in part by previously announced aid. If doses already announced in recent weeks by G-7 and EU nations are included, the tally grows to roughly 870 million doses, according to the communique.

To reach the 1 billion figure, G-7 officials included pledges made starting back in February. The communique also was the latest sign in a standoff over whether to waive intellectual-property rights as a way to try to increase vaccine production.

Big splash

The leaders clearly wanted to make a big splash with the promise. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson kicked off the summit by emphasizing the target, and US President Joe Biden hailed his government’s commitment to supply half of the 1 billion new doses.

The biggest batches come from countries that had cornered the market early on for domestic use. The US and the UK account for nearly all the new pledges – after they steered hundreds of millions of doses produced on their soil for their own citizens, while restricting exports for months.

That approach led to stark vaccine disparities globally, even among the wealthy members of the G-7. The US and UK have fully vaccinated nearly half their populations while Japan and Canada have fully vaccinated less than 10%.

“It’s a good step, but the G-7 should feel far from content,” said Krishna Udayakumar, the founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.

“It seems like for an announcement, they went for a nice big round number without a lot of detail around it. Hopefully there is detail around it, as opposed to being figured out after the fact,” he said.

Intellectual property

Health advocates have warned that the world needs billions of doses to quell the pandemic and to halt uncontrolled spread that generates more dangerous variants, against which vaccine protection may be less effective.

The pledges come as the bloc grapples with another question – whether and how to lift intellectual-property rights protections for the vaccines. Biden threw his weight behind that idea but it has languished after Merkel opposed it.

The communique pledged only to “support manufacturing in low-income countries,” but didn’t say specifically how. It noted the “importance of intellectual property” and the “positive impact” of voluntary licensing – both clauses that reflect the view of countries opposed to a waiver. “We will explore all options to ensure affordable and accessible Covid-19 tools for the poorest countries,” it said.

Despite some lingering resentment, the new doses pledged at the summit are a welcome sign to nations without domestic vaccine production that have been desperately awaiting shots. The new and existing pledges include:

While some of that was previously announced, the latest measures are also in some cases not entirely new. The 500 million doses pledged by the U.S. will be funded in part by $2 billion that Biden had initially promised for Covax, the World Health Organization-backed initiative aimed at facilitating equitable global distribution. Biden will claw that money back and buy doses directly, then work with Covax to distribute them.

Biden also has said he’ll share 80 million doses by the end of this month. Those are expected to be a mix of Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna Inc. and AstraZeneca Plc shots.

The 100 million UK doses – including 5 million to be distributed by September and a total of 30 million in 2021 – will be a mix of several suppliers and will be based on UK supply. The cost of the doses remains unclear.

The Canadian pledge includes 13 million directly donated doses as well as a previously announced C$440 million ($361.9 million) pledge to Covax. Counting that money, Canada framed its donation as up to 100 million doses total, though only the 13 million are new. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s vaccination program initially struggled from a lack of domestic production, leaving it reliant on imports and now facing a belated wave of orders rolling in.

Not enough?

As part of a recasting the EU’s target, the official said the bloc would double the number of vaccines to be exported to 700 million by the end of the year from the current 350 million. Millions of doses have been exported from the EU to other G-7 members, including the UK, Japan and Canada.

The speed of donations is as important as the number of shots, Udayakumar said. The pledges “seems to indicate a back-loading of the volume” despite the current pressing need.

“That would be the most negative impact, if we actually waited three to six months to get substantial doses out the door,” he said.

Critics said the promises aren’t enough. Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, an UK-based advocacy group, called Johnson’s pledge of 100 million doses “crumbs from the table.”

“Today we’re only offering to give 100 million doses to the rest of the world – and only by the middle of next year. It’s little more than a PR gimmick,” Dearden said in a statement. He called on Johnson and Merkel to back the intellectual property waiver; the communique showed the countries divided on that issue.