US President Joe Biden on Thursday saluted a “historic” moment in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic after the country announced it would donate 500 million vaccine doses to poorer nations.
French President Emmanuel Macron issued his own call for pharmaceutical groups producing vaccines to donate 10 per cent of their production to poor nations.
“This is about our responsibility, our humanitarian obligation to save as many lives as we can,” Mr Biden told reporters on the eve of the G7 summit in Cornwall, southwestern England.
Mr Biden said the move was also in the United States’ interest because of the risk of variants, while the White House said the decision would “supercharge the global fight against the pandemic”.
The enduring challenge to defeat the virus was earlier laid bare by the World Health Organization, which warned Europeans not to drop their guard because vaccination levels remain too low to stop another wave of infections.
Although pockets of the rich world have scored successes against the disease, the gains are fragile and billions of mostly poor people remain unprotected.
Pressure on rich countries to address the glaring vaccine inequality is growing as their rising levels of immunity allow a gradual return to normal life.
Over 100 million people in the 27-nation European Union, or 22.6 per cent of its population, have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to an AFP count.
In Africa, dose sharing is ‘do or die’
The contrast with developing nations was further evidenced on Thursday when South Africa’s National Institute For Communicable Diseases announced the country had technically entered a third wave, with more than 9,000 cases over the past 24 hours.
Africa has hit five million COVID-19 cases, with the continent’s southern region the worst affected, accounting for 43 per cent of all deaths.
WHO regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, said the continent required an extra 225 million doses to be able to vaccinate a tenth of its people by September this year.
“With vaccine stocks and shipments drying up, the continent’s vaccination coverage for the first dose remains stuck at two per cent, and at about one per cent in sub-saharan Africa,” Mr Moeti told a weekly news briefing.
“Vaccines have been proven to prevent cases and deaths, so countries must urgently share COVID-19 vaccines. It’s do or die on dose sharing for Africa.”
On Thursday, India reported a global record of more than 6,000 COVID-19 deaths in a day after one state dramatically revised its data upwards, fuelling concerns that the official tally of almost 360,000 deaths, the world’s third-highest toll, is woefully understated.
Leaders at the G7 have targeted donations of one billion vaccine doses destined for the world’s poorest countries.
The United States has faced criticism for sitting on huge stocks of unused vaccines.
But with more than 60 per cent of Americans having received at least one shot, Washington has moved to reclaim global leadership with the donation of 500 million Pfizer-BioNTech jabs to 92 poor and lower-middle-income nations.
The American donation will be channelled through the COVAX program, which aims to ensure equitable global vaccine distribution.
The White House said the doses will start shipping in August, with the first 200 million delivered by the end of the year.
Dismissing suggestions that it is in a so-called vaccine diplomacy contest with Russia and China, Washington has described its initiatives as a return to multilateral action after the nationalist isolationism under Mr Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.
Pfizer’s Chairman and CEO Albert Bouria, attending the G7 meeting, saluted Mr Biden for his leadership.
“As the G7 countries come together for this critical summit, the eyes of the world are on the leaders of these powerful nations to help solve the on-going COVID-19 crisis,” Mr Bouria said.
“While great progress has been made in many developed nations, the world is now asking the G7 leaders to shoulder the responsibility to help vaccinate people in all countries,” he added.
In Europe, some restrictions have been eased of late, notably ahead of the Euro football competition starting on Friday.
But Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director, warned against any complacency as the organisation says to date just 30 per cent of people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 17 per cent have been fully vaccinated in the WHO’s European Region – which spans 53 countries and territories and includes several in Central Asia.
Warning against repeating past ‘mistake’
“Vaccination coverage is far from sufficient to protect the region from a resurgence,” Mr Kluge told reporters, warning against repeating the “mistake” of last summer by easing protective measures prematurely.
Iran’s government meanwhile warned that recent success in containing the Middle East’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak risks being reversed should the public cease being diligent in their precautions amid a shortage of vaccines.
The country saw total infections pass the three million mark on Thursday, adding to the global total of almost 174,350,990. The pandemic has claimed more than 3.7 million lives worldwide.
In Lebanon, cash-strapped politicians are offering free COVID-19 jabs to their base ahead of next year’s elections. With the country in the grip of a severe economic crisis, vaccines are a luxury for many.