Covid-19

OP-ED

Multilateralism is alive and kicking in hunt for Covid-19 vaccine

View of the Biofabri factory, which belongs to Zendal Gruop, in Vigo, Galicia, Spain, 16 September 2020. Biofabri plans to produce the vaccine for Covid-19 developed by US company Novavax. EPA-EFE/SALVADOR SAS

Wealthier countries have been accused of abandoning a collective global response to Covid-19 in favour of ‘vaccine nationalism’. But at the UN General Assembly virtual meeting on 30 September, the UK, South Africa and others showed that they are energetically working on an international system to ensure vaccines will be available and affordable globally, including in Africa.

Coronavirus has transformed all of our lives this year, causing havoc to health systems and economies around the world. Over a million people are estimated to have died. The UN estimates that between April and June, the number of hours worked worldwide dropped by 14% – the equivalent of 400 million jobs. The IMF calculates that the pandemic will cost more than $12-trillion in lost output this year and next.

And we are by no means coming to the end of this crisis. The steep rise in the number of Covid-19 cases globally continues. While South Africa has seen a welcome reduction in infections, our experience in the UK and elsewhere in Europe has been that these hard-won gains can quickly be reversed. President Cyril Ramaphosa has rightly asserted that “a vaccine is our best hope of ending the pandemic” and returning to something like normal life.

Our scientists are working at unrivalled speed to develop effective vaccines. In a reflection of the strength of the science and research links between our countries, one of the most promising trials, for the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, is being run in partnership with the University of the Witwatersrand. Phase three trials are making good progress, and we hope for positive results in the months ahead.

But we know very well that developing an effective vaccine or vaccines is only the first part of the triple challenge we face. The pandemic can only begin to be brought under sustainable control when we are able to manufacture vaccines and then deliver them on an enormous scale. And that is going to cost a lot of money.

As the AU Chair, President Ramaphosa has rightly made the case for ensuring access to vaccines for all countries on this continent, regardless of their ability to pay. And the UK has from the outset supported his efforts to build an African response, investing nearly R450-million into the African Union Coronavirus Fund. We have worked together in the G20 to promote the suspension of debt repayments for heavily indebted countries struggling with the economic burden of coronavirus.

The UK and South Africa have played a leading role internationally in pushing for a multilateral effort to develop, manufacture and distribute vaccines, making full use of existing multilateral institutions to deliver a coordinated international response to the pandemic.

This week we used our convening power to bring together at the UN a powerful alliance for global access to vaccines. On Wednesday 30 September 2020, the UK, South Africa, the UN and the WHO co-hosted one of the most significant events of this year’s virtual UN General Assembly. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, South Africa’s Health Minister, Zweli Mkhize, the UN Secretary-General and the WHO Director-General were joined by the likes of Bill Gates, Angela Merkel, Winnie Byanyima, Justin Trudeau, Erna Solberg, and other world leaders and experts.

The event made the moral, political and economic case for multilateral collaboration on vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics through the recently established Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator. It also gave global profile to the “Covax” Facility, a novel procurement mechanism which aims to pool global resources and demand, so as to incentivise the rapid development and manufacture at scale of a range of vaccine candidates. Crucially, Covax also aims to ensure that 92 of the world’s poorest countries, many of them here in Africa, are able to afford a coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available. The UK has pledged R13.5-billion to this facility, and we have urged other wealthy countries to make similar commitments.

Wednesday’s event was successful in generating immediate further financing for the mechanism, with significant new pledges from Germany, Canada and other countries. We are hopeful that more will follow. It also helped to develop a consensus view that the international Covid-19 response must look after the needs of the most vulnerable as much as the most privileged.

As the UK’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said, “We have a duty to ensure vaccines, treatments and tests for Covid-19 are available to all – stopping the global spread of the pandemic… will put humanity on the road to recovery.”

This event follows the UK’s leadership at the Coronavirus Global Response pledging conference in May, which raised about R140-billion. The UK is also the biggest donor to GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance and to the efforts of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness to find a vaccine.

Events like Wednesday’s underline what can be achieved by countries that are serious about making multilateralism a reality, not just a slogan. The UK is determined to carry on working with like-minded partners like South Africa for as long as it takes to overcome this pandemic. DM

Nigel Casey is the British High Commissioner to South Africa.

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