UN calls for Covid unity amid rows between US, China and others

Tensions persist between the US and China, while poor countries say they struggle to access vaccines.

A paramedic walks amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in front of a hospital in Warsaw, Poland December 3, 2020. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
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A United Nations summit on Covid-19 kicked off on Thursday with calls for global unity against the pandemic but amid stark differences over access to vaccines and on the origins of the deadly virus.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres launched the two-day UN General Assembly session with a warning that some leaders were ignoring science and that poor countries could not get their hands on coronavirus vaccines.

The UN’s Covid-19 response has been hampered by United States efforts to censure China as the origin of the virus, while wealthy UN members are criticised for buying up almost the entire global supply of vaccines for next year.

“From the start, the World Health Organisation provided factual information and scientific guidance that should have been the basis for a co-ordinated global response,” Mr Guterres said in a socially-distanced General Assembly hall.

“Unfortunately, these recommendations were not followed. Some countries continue to reject facts and ignore guidance. And when countries go in their own direction, the virus goes in every direction.”

The coronavirus pandemic has killed some 1.5 million people globally and infected 65 million, wiping out hundreds of millions of jobs, plunging millions into extreme poverty and pushing economies into recession.

The US, Brazil, Britain, Sweden and other countries have faced criticism for failing to adequately tackle the crisis by mandating the use of facemasks and other steps that slow the pathogen’s spread.

Mr Guterres called for an $8 trillion global stimulus package, debt relief for poor countries and $28 billion for the UN’s Covax scheme for developing and distributing vaccines and treatments in the developing world, including $4.3 billion that was needed urgently.

When countries go in their own direction, the virus goes in every direction

“I have repeatedly called for a Covid-19 vaccine to be a global public good available to everyone, everywhere,” said the former prime minister of Portugal.

The UN talks began as rich countries continued negotiating mass-purchase deals with Pfizer, Moderna, BioNTech, AstraZeneca and other makers of Covid-19 vaccines, meaning most of next year’s global vaccine supply is already reserved.

Munir Akram, Pakistan’s envoy to the UN and president of its economics body, warned that debt-laden impoverished countries could not match the buying power seen across North America, Europe and East Asia.

“Advanced purchase agreements for the virus must not be allowed to undermine our collective commitment to equity in vaccine distribution,” said Mr Akram, who heads the UN’s Economic and Social Council.

“Governments must also commit to transparency in all matters related to the production, distribution, and fair pricing of the vaccine.”

India, South Africa and other developing world governments have pushed for a relaxation of drugmakers’ intellectual property rights at the World Trade Organisation, saying they should be able to manufacture jabs themselves.

UN talks were also clouded by tensions between the US and China. A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters this week that the UN confab had been “pre-engineered to serve China’s purposes” so it could make a “propaganda play”.

US President Donald Trump has called Covid-19 the “Wuhan flu” because it was first discovered in the central Chinese city last year. He has also bashed the World Health Organisation for being a puppet of Beijing and announced plans to quit the UN agency.

More than 140 leaders and ministers were set to address the UN via pre-recorded statements on Thursday, including Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was set to discuss making vaccines a “global public good” with executives from the major vaccine producers on Friday, according to the program.