Omicron variant shows why it is in our own self-interest to help vaccinate poor countries
The UK is a world leader in vaccination and it’s something which we can be rightly proud of. Apart from the much larger and richer USA, we as a nation have pledged to donate more Covid-19 vaccinations than any other including more than triple those pledged by France or Germany, and again over three times more than Japan whose economy is around twice the size of our own.
Not only that, but it is the made-in-Britain vaccine that is reaching more countries than any other with at least 170 out of 195 using the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab – 71 more than the number using the next most popular Pfizer-Biontech vaccine.
Such ambition should be celebrated and indeed, the move received thundering praise when the promise was made back in June. At the G7, our Prime Minister called on the other leaders to step up, to match this ambition, to vaccinate the world by the end of next year. It was the right attitude but unfortunately it has not yet translated into action.
Despite this great ambition, 5 months on, Britain is still behind pace. The government says 30.6 million doses will have been donated overseas by the end of 2021, leaving a further 69.4 million doses still to be donated. Of the 100 million we promised, 80 million of those doses were pledged to the agreed international mechanism for donating and distributing vaccines to poorer countries, COVAX – but so far, they have only received 10 million doses from the UK, which they have said has severely undermined their planning and ability to support vaccination overseas.
While the government made the welcome announcement that they would be stepping up donations last weekend, this still leaves us trailing if we hope to meet our June 2022 target of 100 million doses.
Improving on the ground delivery in developing countries and the ability to manufacture vaccines themselves is vital
It is so clear to me, and the rest of the APPG on Coronavirus, that vaccinating the world is not only the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do.
Let’s start with the right thing. In the world’s low-income countries, only around three per cent of people are fully vaccinated and approximately 94 per cent are yet to receive a first dose. In these countries, high levels of hospitalisation and death from Covid persist and for the elderly, the clinically vulnerable and for frontline healthcare workers every day is a roll of the dice. Contrast that with the UK. Because the government rightly prioritised our domestic vaccine rollout, around eight in 10 over-12s are now fully vaccinated.
Now we sit in the fortunate position where we are able to provide booster vaccines to all those over the age of 18 and while we still face our own challenge of convincing the more hesitant among us to take up the vaccine, we must recognise this is a fortunate challenge to face.
Here in the UK, we are sitting on vast numbers of surplus vaccine doses, totalling enough to provide boosters at home while also meeting our commitment to these other countries where a first dose can save lives.
Now let’s consider why it’s the smart thing. Concern continues to grow about the Omicron variant gripping Europe, having emerged from a region of the world with a largely unvaccinated population. This comes after seeing the same happen with the Delta variant, the first variant to emerge from an unvaccinated population in India. You start to see a pattern.
The more people remain unvaccinated, the more chance there is of a new variant emerging, bringing with it a whole host of concerns and unknowns – as we are experiencing with the Omicron variant.
Indeed, as early as in August, the independent group of scientists who advise the government, SAGE, warned that as the virus continues to spread, a new variant could evolve that is completely resistant to the vaccine. We couldn’t prevent new variants entering the UK when we were in lockdown, so what chance do we have now with international travel almost back to full swing around the world?
All we can do is to wait and see until we learn more about the transmissibility and severity of the new Omicron variant, but one thing is clear, our moral and humanitarian responsibilities aside, it is also in our own self-interest to vaccinate the world, to protect both other countries and ourselves from the emergence of new variants.
A lot more work is needed to achieve this beyond donating vaccines to countries that need them. Improving on the ground delivery in developing countries and improving their ability to manufacture vaccines themselves is vital and to be clear, the UK and the US can’t, and shouldn’t, do this alone. Big economies like China, Germany and other European nations need to pull their weight.
Layla Moran is the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon.
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