Leaders of the Group of Seven economic powers pledged Friday to immunise the world’s neediest people against the coronavirus by giving money, and precious vaccine doses, to a U.N.-backed vaccine distribution effort.
But the leaders, under pressure over their vaccination programmes at home, were unable to say precisely how much vaccine they were willing to share with the developing world, or when.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the G-7 leaders held a virtual meeting that equal distribution of vaccines was “an elementary question of fairness.”
But she said, “No vaccination appointment in Germany is going to be endangered.”
After their first meeting of the year — conducted remotely because of the pandemic — the leaders said they will accelerate global vaccine production and deployment” and support “affordable and equal access to vaccines” and treatments for COVID-19. They cited a combined $7.5 billion from the G-7 to U.N.-backed COVID-19 efforts.
“This is a global pandemic, and it’s no use one country being far ahead of another,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said as he opened the virtual summit with the leaders of the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan. The U.K. holds the G-7 presidency this year.
“We’ve got to move together,” Johnson said, speaking from the prime minister’s 10 Downing St. residence to the other leaders in their far-flung offices. “So, one of the things that I know that colleagues will be wanting to do is to ensure that we distribute vaccines at cost around the world.”
Wealthy nations have bought up several billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines, although several countries in the developing world have little to none.
G-7 leaders are keen to avoid appearing arrogant — and don’t want to cede the terrain of vaccine diplomacy to less democratic but faster-moving countries such as China and Russia.
Johnson, whose country has recorded almost 120,000 virus-related deaths, vowed to send “the majority of any future surplus vaccines” to the U.N.-backed COVAX initiative to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable citizens.
But Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly said it was “difficult to say with any kind of certainty” when or how much Britain will donate.
French President Emmanuel Macron gave a firmer goal, saying Europe and the U.S. should allocate up to 5 percent of their existing COVID-19 vaccine stocks to the poorest countries quickly.
“This is worth an enormous amount. It is worth our credibility,” Macron said after the meeting,
“If we can do this, then the West will have a presence” in African countries, he said. If not, those countries will turn to Chinese and Russian vaccines and “the power of the West will…not be a reality.”
Macron’s office said France was ready to hand over 5 percent of its doses but would not give exact numbers or a date.
As the African continent awaits delivery of doses through COVAX, an African Union-created vaccines task force said Friday that it would be getting 300 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine in May. The AU previously secured 270 million doses from AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson for the continent of 1.3 billion people.
The governments of Canada and the European G-7 nations are under pressure to speed up their domestic vaccination campaigns after being outpaced by Britain and the U.S.
Asked later Friday about Macron’s proposal, Germany’s Merkel said that “we have not yet spoken about the percentage.”
“We haven’t yet spoken about the timing” either, the chancellor told reporters in Berlin. “That still has to be discussed.”
Development and aid organisations welcomed the commitments but said rich Western countries needed to do more, and soon.
Gayle Smith, chief executive of anti-poverty agency the ONE Movement, said “world leaders are finally waking up to the scale of this crisis.”
“It beggars belief that in the midst of a global pandemic a handful of countries have accumulated over a billion vaccines more than they will need, while 130 countries have no vaccines at all,” she said.
The summit marked Biden’s his first major multilateral engagement since taking office. America’s allies hope that U.S. re-engagement with the world after the “America first” years under former President Donald Trump would mean a more organised approach on issues such as the pandemic and climate change.
Biden signed the U.S. up to the COVAX plan, which Trump declined to endorse, and has promised to distribute $4 billion in U.S. funding to the programme.
The G-7 meeting — and a speech by Biden at the Munich Security Conference on Friday — comes the day the United States formally rejoins the Paris climate agreement, the largest international attempt to curb global warming. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the historic accord in 2017.
The Biden administration also said it was willing to enter talks with Iran and world powers to negotiate a return to the 2015 agreement to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, which was repudiated by Trump.
In a joint statement reflecting the United States’ re-embrace of international organisations, the G-7 leaders vowed to “make 2021 a turning point for multilateralism and to shape a recovery that promotes the health and prosperity of our people and planet.”
They said post-pandemic economic recovery efforts would place the fight against climate change and declining biodiversity “at the centre of our plans.”
A full G-7 summit is scheduled to take place in June at the Carbis Bay seaside resort in southwest England.