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Voices: Boris Johnson has a dangerous disregard for the facts over efforts to vaccinate the world

The Independent logo The Independent 28/11/2021 Gordon Brown
Boris Johnson should be announcing that Britain will lead the way in supplying vaccines to African countries  - AP © AP

Boris Johnson should be announcing that Britain will lead the way in supplying vaccines to African countries

- AP

Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, our well-respected chief medical and scientific advisers, should sit Boris Johnson down and acquaint him with some basic medical facts.

First, they should demand that he retracts mistaken statements made at Saturday evening’s press conference. Second, they should make clear that it is in all our interests that he change course in the way he is treating Africa, the current epicentre for Covid fears.

The British government, through Johnson, told us that the UK has been “leading” the effort to vaccinate the world, and has been the most generous of all in gifting vaccines to poorer countries – and the real hurdle was “vaccine hesitancy” and “low take-up”. The tragedy facing people in Africa today – Johnson appeared to say – is not the lack of vaccines but their unwillingness to get vaccinated.

Not for the first time, Johnson has shown a casual disregard for the facts. But this time his erroneous claims – and the result – a longer-term failure to speed up the delivery of unused Covid-19 vaccines to Africa, is putting lives at risk not only in Africa but round the world. Any complacency about low vaccination and testing rates in poorer countries will not just put Christmas 2021 at risk but may leave us facing similar problems of a half-vaccinated world next year – and even next Christmas.

This weekend, Mozambique, Angola, Malawi and Zambia were added to Britain’s red list of countries to and from which travel is banned, joining South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia, Zimbabwe. Mozambique, where 89 per cent remain unvaccinated, is crying out for vaccines to protect its people against Covid-19. So too is Angola, where 92 per cent have not even had their first dose; and Zambia and Malawi, where 97 per cent of the population of the two countries remain unvaccinated. There even health workers – risking their own lives daily to save others – are unprotected and on current trends will go without vaccines for some time. Not because they are “hesitant” about being vaccinated but because their country has little or no vaccines available to offer them.

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Fearing what it calls “upcoming new waves of Covid-19 infections”, the highly respected Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has made an urgent plea for countries to accelerate immunisation “to prevent severe cases and deaths”. And in contrast to Johnson’s claims, the Africa Union’s Vaccine Delivery Alliance co-chair, Dr Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, said: “What is going on right now is inevitable: it’s a result of the world’s failure to vaccinate in an equitable, urgent and speedy manner… It is a result of vaccine-hoarding by high-income countries of the world, and quite frankly it is unacceptable.”

Or as Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation, puts it: “The world should provide support to South Africa and Africa, and not discriminate or isolate it.”

Yes, there is resistance everywhere in the world, from a minority of anti-vaxxers, to getting jabs into people’s arms. But of the two countries now on the front line, Botswana has already administered 86 per cent of its supply, and South Africa 78 per cent – a far higher figure for the usage of available doses than in Britain, Europe or America, where there are so many unused vaccines that Airfinity, the expert data research agency, expects that by Christmas, 100 million will have been destroyed as they pass their “use by” dates.

The biggest problem is not the reluctance of people in Africa to be vaccinated, but the failure of the west to honour our promise to supply the doses. Johnson’s claim that the British government has been more generous than anyone else in gifting doses falls apart when subjected to scrutiny. Under his chairmanship, the G7 countries meeting in Cornwall in June promised to vaccinate the whole world, but they are failing to deliver.

The west’s first broken promise was the pledge to vaccinate 10 per cent of the 92 poorest countries by September. This would have immunised all health workers and vulnerable people – but 82 of the world’s poorest countries were denied sufficient vaccines to enable them to meet the target. The second broken promise, made at a summit held by President Biden in September, was to vaccinate 40 per cent by December. In fact, just 3 per cent of people in low-income countries have been fully vaccinated, and only 7 per cent of the population of Africa, compared with 67.3 per cent in high-income countries.

And there is a good reason why the divide between the vaccine “haves” and “have-nots” mirrors the already entrenched divide between global rich and global poor. Of 9.1 billion doses produced so far, around 85 per cent have been monopolised by the richest G20 countries. Even today, when Africa’s need is clearly the greatest, 71 per cent of the contracts for vaccine supplies are controlled by the G20 countries. As of 26 November, 7.9 billion of the doses had been administered, but less than 1 per cent – only 1 in 160 – of the vaccines had gone to low-income countries, and only 3 per cent – 1 in every 32 – to Africa, despite its population of 1.3 billion.

The British government lags on donations. While America promised to donate 1 billion doses, and Europe 550 million, to the poorest parts of the world, the UK has promised only 100 million doses. It’s a serious enough failure when even America has delivered only 25 per cent of its promised tally, and the European Union only 19 per cent. Indeed, only 11 per cent of Britain’s promised donation has been delivered, leaving all of us at risk when – through no fault of their own – a number of countries have found themselves at the centre of outbreaks of new variants of the virus.

The shortage of vaccines is reflected, too, in the shortage of tests. If we are to detect the disease and its new variants, we need to increase our ability to test worldwide. Four billion tests have been administered in the past year and a half, but only 70 million of these in Africa; as a result, only a fraction of those potentially carrying the disease in Africa are even identified.

“It’s not too late to change this SOS,” writes Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at University of the Witwatersrand, about the need for vaccinations now. There is no time to hold back: 500 million vaccines now stockpiled in the west could be sent out almost immediately.

By December the figure could be 600 million. Having recognised his misleading statements, Johnson should tell us that instead of lagging behind, Britain will now actually lead the way.

This is not just about Africa. Many lives and livelihoods depend on the provision of vaccines to poorer countries. It is not just that no one is safe anywhere until everyone is safe everywhere: it is also that all of us will live in fear until no one lives in fear.

Gordon Brown is the World Health Organisation ambassador for global health financing and was UK prime minister from 2007 to 2010

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