Tuesday, 7 September. Last Sunday and Monday, 5-6 September, the G20 Health Ministers met in Rome. Although inequalities in access to Covid-19 vaccines widen every day, the G20 countries have taken no decisive action to change this course. Their declaration reiterates the need for action, but no concrete measures were announced on crucial issues such as global immunisation coverage targets through more dose donations, additional financial commitments, or the temporary lifting of patents.
The Health Ministers’ declaration multiplies the statement of intent. It confirms the importance of making the Covid-19 vaccine a “global public good”, with a goal of vaccinating 40% of the world’s population by the end of the year, as well as its support for the Charter for Equitable Access to Covid-19 Tools. It thus reaffirms the commitment of the G20 Heads of State and Government in favour of sharing safe, quality and affordable vaccines against Covid-19. In the declaration, Ministers state they also “intend to reinforce the global health architecture and governance” and emphasise the central role of the WHO as leader and coordinator. Finally, it reiterates the importance of strengthening public health systems in order to prepare for future pandemics and achieve universal health coverage (UHC).
If the G20 Health Ministers do not call for action, who will? While the world is still facing the Covid-19 crisis, how can we imagine the international community to be prepared for the next pandemic if it does not even give itself the means to quickly put a worldwide end to the current one.
This is already the second G20 since the start of the pandemic. Today, we are fortunate to have effective medical tools to fight the virus and prevent deaths. Not only we have vaccines, but also treatments and diagnostics that together limit the spread of the pandemic and its effects. However, the WHO-led system of Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) still does not have enough funds to meet global needs, with some countries not even respecting their commitments. Meanwhile, vaccine inequalities continue to widen between rich countries and those with lower incomes. In fact, 75% of vaccine doses administered so far went to just 10 countries. Rich countries continue to stockpile vaccine doses, sometimes letting them expire, while much of the planet is unprotected against the virus. The EU has 70% of its adult population fully vaccinated, while many low-income countries have not even managed to vaccinate 2% of their population. Likewise, the oxygen shortage is leading to dire situations in many hospitals.
Equitable distribution of vaccines would play a central role in ending the current pandemic. The majority of G20 countries have pledged to redistribute some of the doses they ordered with countries that do not have access to them. The pace, however, must be accelerated as low- and middle-income countries continue to see their access to vaccines postponed.
Among the principles repeated by G20 members is the call to improve equitable access to Covid-19 tools, and in particular to vaccines. One of the key issues revolves around the sharing of know-how for mRNA technology to enable the diversification and acceleration of vaccine production in low-income countries. Nevertheless, several G20 countries stubbornly refuse to lift intellectual property rights that would allow all countries that have the capacity to begin vaccine production. The G20 includes South Africa and India, which in 2020 called for the temporary lifting of the TRIPS agreements. The EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said during the last meeting: “On the issue of vaccine production, we will expand production and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. We are ready to discuss any option that helps end the pandemic as soon as possible.” Ironically, the G20 Health Ministers declaration welcomes the creation of the WHO mRNA technology transfer Hub, while none of the leading laboratories, which are currently marketing mRNA vaccines, has joined this Hub.
While the end of October will see a joint meeting of G20 Finance and Health Ministers, just before the Summit of Heads of State and Government, we hope that, unlike the G7, the G20 is up to the task and gives the international community the means to act quickly and effectively.