G20 nations were urged to speed up the supply of vaccines to Africa on Tuesday but traded barbs over their efforts to distribute shots.
A summit of foreign ministers in Rome was told that the pandemic was far from over in Africa even as vaccines lift the strain on wealthy countries.
Christophe Lutundula, the minister representing the Democratic Republic of Congo, urged the G20 to help African countries to produce their own vaccines.
Rich countries should make concrete plans to “move beyond speeches to urgent action on the ground", he said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the summit that “we must get more vaccines to more places” to bring the pandemic to an end.
He touted Washington’s promise to donate 500 million vaccines to developing countries after months of minimal exports from the US.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on “able countries to avoid export restrictions or excessive hoarding” of vaccines.
He aimed a veiled rebuke at Mr Blinken’s efforts to use the summit to reassure allies of Washington’s commitment to multilateralism.
Mr Blinken’s week-long trip to Europe is part of a push by President Joe Biden’s administration to re-engage with allies after the stormy Donald Trump years.
“Multilateralism is not a high-sounding slogan, and it cannot become gift-wrapping for the implementation of unilateral action,” Mr Wang said.
China and Russia, in turn, were criticised for their “vaccine diplomacy” by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
Moscow has heavily marketed its Sputnik V vaccine abroad, while China says it has exported 450 million doses of its Sinopharm and Sinovac shots.
Mr Maas said the G20 should “openly address the fact that we do not think much of their vaccine diplomacy”.
“This is not about achieving short-term geostrategic advantages, but we must fight this pandemic together,” he said.
Patent dispute continues
Mr Maas said the world should “quickly create alternatives so that countries, regions like Africa, for example, can be supplied with more vaccine more quickly”.
“The focus now definitely has to be on providing the supply chains, but also the production facilities,” he said.
Germany has so far opposed the US-backed proposal to boost vaccine production by lifting intellectual property rights on the shots.
Mr Maas said he was willing to discuss the proposal, but said: “I have doubts whether that will lead to quick consequences”.
Mr Blinken’s call for multilateralism was echoed by Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who was hosting the summit as part of Italy’s presidency of the G20.
“In an interconnected world, multilateralism and international cooperation are the only effective instruments in facing global challenges,” he said.
But India’s minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, said that institutional multilateralism had been “found wanting”.
India, the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines, is among the countries pushing for a patent waiver.
Donations under the global Covax scheme include supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is made in India under the name Covishield.
The EU is under pressure after it emerged that the Covishield version is not approved in Europe, meaning some Indians face difficulty travelling there.