World urged to work together to beat 'existential' Covid-19 threat

New report says 'lethargic' leadership and vaccine hoarding by richer countries will allow the coronavirus to keep spreading and changing

Volunteers pray in front of the bodies of coronavirus victims in Myanmar, one of the many countries where infections surged. Reuters
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A global agreement on vaccinations is urgently needed to address the “existential threat” posed to humanity by diseases such as Covid-19, a group of leading academics in the UK has said.

The coronavirus pandemic demonstrated a glaring lack of solidarity among rich countries which is self-defeating because, until there is full vaccination, the disease will not be eradicated, according to the Chatham House think tank.

International bodies such as the UN, the G7 and the G20 have been “pathetic” in organising a unified approach to fighting the virus, which continues to evolve into new variants.

“We're going to look back on this period with anger and shame for not sharing vaccines,” the report stated. It said rich countries have instead bought up vaccines for their own populations without consideration for the developing world.

Coffins are lined up outside a crematorium in Myanmar during a coronavirus surge. AP

Chatham House's report, Solidarity in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, said governments and institutions needed to “urgently address the widening of inequities emerging from this crisis and better prepare for the next”.

Solidarity was “not just positive rhetoric” but also a necessary condition “for suppressing the pandemic effectively”.

The report said that the now well-used phrase “no one is safe until we are all safe” had become “profoundly true”.

Its authors condemned the hoarding of vaccines by many wealthy countries. “It's like saying to your neighbours whose house is burning down, you can have our fire extinguishers. But you can't have them now, we might need them in the future,” said Robert Yates, the Global Health Programme director at Chatham House.

Although global bodies such as the UN Security Council had previously come to the fore in a global crisis, “their lethargic leadership in response to this pandemic has highlighted the need for more agile and inclusive governance mechanisms that embody the values of solidarity,” the report said.

Although the G7 summit in June addressed some deficiencies in co-operation, its commitments fell far short of bringing the pandemic under control by 2022.

Covax, the global body for distributing surplus vaccinations, had shortcomings, the report said, adding that there was a need for a new “pandemic governance instrument” that could enforce a global treaty.

Solidarity cannot be built overnight, but there should be a focus on institutions and rules that encourage collective action,” the report stated. “One way greater solidarity can be created is through countries agreeing to a set of rules about how they would prepare for and respond to a future pandemic.”

Using the system of so-called vaccine diplomacy – winning political and economic influence by sending vaccines to favoured countries – was legitimate given the lack of a unified global approach, said Charles Clift, of Chatham House's Global Health Programme.

“In the absence of the allocation system working properly then diplomacy can have benefits,” he said. “But some countries that have taken advantage of these vaccines have found they don't seem to work very well, and they've had a resurgence of the epidemic.

"It's definitely a second-best option and I wouldn't totally condemn it if it gets vaccines to people who need them.”

He added that some pharmaceutical companies made significant profits from the vaccines while others had offered them at cost price. Pfizer and Moderna were on course to make $8 billion profit from the vaccines this year whereas last year Pfizer’s overall profits were $33bn and Moderna made a loss of $750 million.

The enforcement of trade restrictions on companies, seen in the spat between Britain and the EU over the AstraZeneca vaccine, had undermined solidarity and was “detrimental to the global effort”, the Chatham House report stated.

Covid-19 had also demonstrated that even the most effective health systems could be overwhelmed by an infectious disease if it was allowed to grow unchecked, revealing the requirement for an international treaty on pandemic and vaccines, the report said.

Updated: July 14, 2021, 4:41 PM