Blog: Why G7 leaders need to work much harder on vaccine access

The US donation of half a billion vaccines may sound impressive – but it’s a drop in the ocean. Vaccine manufacturing rights need to be freed up now

Christina McAnea

G7 leaders are meeting this weekend in Cornwall and one of the main things they’ll be discussing is global access to COVID-19 vaccines.

The world cannot be safe until everyone has access to a vaccine. So we are in a race against time to reach global coverage and prevent new variants emerging.

Since January, UNISON has been calling for the right to manufacture vaccines to be made freely available, so that there can be major step change in the production of vaccines.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement on intellectual property rights includes a clause to free up these rights in exceptional circumstances. If a global pandemic doesn’t meet the criteria of exceptional circumstances, then what does?

A coalition of countries including India and South Africa, with the support of the World Health Organisation, the global trade union movement and many other organisations have been calling for the WTO to act. Unfortunately, a coalition of rich countries including the UK, the EU and Japan have been blocking that demand.

The Biden administration in the US has recently endorsed the proposal to free-up manufacturing rights and we are calling on Boris Johnson to do the same. We need to remember that the vaccines have only been developed so quickly thanks to huge sums of public money from our government, the US government and governments in the EU. It was public money that drove the research and accelerated the manufacturing process, but we need to do more.

It’s great that countries like the UK and Canada have now ensured that over 60% of their populations have had a least one dose. However, in Nigeria, Africa’s largest country, only 1.1% have had one dose. It is a similar situation across sub Saharan Africa. Vaccination rates in Asia, although higher, still fall short of where we need to be to prevent the transmission of new variants.

Countries like the UK and the US have bought enough vaccines to vaccinate their populations several times over, so we welcome the announcement that the US and UK will donate vaccines to countries in need.

However, the figures mentioned, whilst they look impressive, are a drop in the ocean compared to the global need. The US donation of 500m vaccines will only cover Nigeria. Boris Johnson’s announcement of 100m donated vaccines wouldn’t even vaccinate South Africa alone.

There is capacity in Africa, Asia and Latin America to start vaccine production now. Nineteen manufacturers have expressed an interest in ramping up production if they are allowed access to the vaccine formula. Of course they will also need access to chemicals and other materials – but we must remember that India, for example, is already a major player in pharmaceuticals and has dozens of facilities that meet global quality standards and could start production very quickly, if they were allowed.

I really hope the G7 leaders will show true global leadership on vaccines this weekend – and that the freeing up of manufacturing rights is central to their plans.