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Covid: Dangerous new variants will emerge unless rich countries share vaccines, UK adviser warns

The Independent logo The Independent 26/07/2021 Adam Forrest
a group of people wearing costumes: South Sudan has started vaccinating its population thanks to doses provided by Covax - Getty © Getty

South Sudan has started vaccinating its population thanks to doses provided by Covax

- Getty

The world is at risk of harmful new Covid-19 variants emerging unless the UK and other wealthy nations share more vaccines with poorer countries, a British government adviser has warned.

It is likely new and “dangerous” variants will emerge which will “chip away” at the effectiveness of vaccines unless there is more global co-operation, the Wellcome Trust and Institute for Government (IfG) think tanks warned.

A joint report released on Monday said the recent G7 summit was a wasted opportunity to come up with a global plan for jabs – warning highly-vaccinated countries like the UK not to view the crisis as nearly over.

“If we don’t vaccinate the world we’re in danger of generating new variants, which, like the Delta variant, will come back to all of us in the future – and they may be much worse than Delta,” said Wellcome director Sir Jeremy Farrar, one of the UK government’s Sage advisers.

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Sir Jeremy added: “For geopolitics, for science and public health, and for the moral and ethical argument, we have to make the vaccine available globally. And I’m afraid, to date, we’ve failed to do that.”

The joint report released on Monday said low and middle-income countries are still only sequencing a tiny proportion of Covid cases – leaving the planet “flying blind” when it comes to tracking and responding to potential new variants.

In the run-up to the G20 meeting in October, the report calls on governments to respond to the challenge with much stronger commitment to sharing vaccinations and virus surveillance – as well as boosting healthcare capacity.

The report also says global leaders must define an acceptable level of domestic vaccination and supply, and agree what surplus vaccines can be committed to the global effort.

The report states: “With approaching half a million new cases being recorded per day globally – a figure that is rising – it is likely that further dangerous variants will emerge.”

It adds: “While most scientists do not currently expect a new variant to emerge that will fully evade vaccines, what are more likely are variants that ‘chip away’ at vaccines’ effectiveness.”

Urging wealthy nation government to commit greater resources, the report finds that vaccinating the whole world to the level of rich countries requires around 11 billion doses at a cost of around £36bn – around £26bn more than has so far been spent.

“One of my major concerns is that the rich world … will gradually move in what I would call a good direction,” Sir Jeremy told a virtual IfG event on Monday – hailing the “extraordinary achievement” of the UK’s vaccine roll-out.

“Tragically though, the rest of the world is a very different position, with less than 1 per cent of populations in low-income countries vaccinated.”

Covax, the worldwide vaccine-sharing programme directed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), has reportedly distributed around 136 million doses so far, split between more than 120 countries.

At the recent summit in Cornwall, the G7 agreed to share only 1 billion doses within the next year – only enough to give around 13 per cent of the global population just one dose.

Reflecting on the mistakes made by Boris Johnson’s government in 2020, Sir Jeremy said he “regrets” the failure to re-impose restrictions in England last autumn, as Covid cases kept on rising.

“I do regret the decision and delays in the fourth quarter of 2020 which led to the January-February wave and yes, the loss of life then,” he added.

“Was the delay during the autumn of 2020 the right decision? It was not the right decision.”

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