UK hosts vaccine summit amid calls for free virus vaccine


Social distancing guidelines on the floor by train departure information screens to help stop the spread of coronavirus in Waterloo station, London, Thursday, June 4, 2020. (Photo: AP)

The British government is hosting a vaccine summit Thursday, hoping to raise billions of dollars to immunize children in developing countries and to discuss how any potential vaccine against the new coronavirus might be distributed globally — and fairly.

The United Nations and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement have urged that “a people’s vaccine” be developed for COVID-19 that would be freely available to everyone, calling it a “moral imperative.”

Thursday’s event is a pledging conference for the vaccines alliance GAVI, which says the funds will be used to vaccinate about 300 million children in dozens of countries against diseases like malaria, pneumonia and HPV.

GAVI is also expected to start a new “advance market commitment” mechanism that it hopes will enable developing countries to get any effective COVID-19 vaccine when available.

But experts pointed out that the unprecedented pandemic — where arguably every country will be clamoring for a vaccine — may make such discussions extremely messy.

And the worldwide scramble for masks and ventilators that erupted in the early stages of the pandemic — where countries like France requisitioned the country’s entire supply of masks and the U.S. apparently paid off the shippers of loads already on airplanes to obtain ventilators — are not encouraging signs that there will be much global cooperation if and when a coronavirus vaccine is available.

“Rich countries will most likely try to push their way to the front of the queue, leaving poorer countries at the back, and that’s a problem,” said Jimmy Whitworth, a professor of international public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“I can’t imagine any country saying, ‘Africa’s need is greater than ours, so they can get the vaccine first and we’ll remain vulnerable.’”

The urgency of finding a way to stem outbreaks was evident as India on Thursday reported yet another record number of new infections — 9,304, with 260 deaths, in the previous 24 hours.

India’s total tally of COVID-19 fatalities surpassed 6,000 and its number of infections has risen to nearly 217,000, the Health Ministry said. That makes India the seventh worst country hit by the pandemic.

Neighboring Pakistan reported over 4,000 new cases and said 82 more people had died, raising its death toll to 1,770. Its confirmed cases surpassed neighboring China, jumping to 85,264 compared with Beijing’s total of 82,967.

The spike in infections comes weeks after Prime Minister Imran Khan overrode warnings from experts and eased a lockdown. Officials have blamed the public for not adhering to social distancing regulations.

Ahead of the vaccine gathering, philanthropist Bill Gates said there were potential solutions to the growing tide of vaccine nationalism — like when the CEO of Sanofi suggested the U.S. had a right to the first doses of any eventual vaccine because of its significant investment.

“The key to that challenge is having scale and having factories all over the world that are making the vaccines,” including multiple factories in Asia, the Americas and Europe, Gates said.

Gates acknowledged there could be some benefit to countries that funded vital vaccine research but called for a “system of allocating doses to those most at risk, and making sure that even the countries that can’t compete financially for that access, that they’re considered — their health workers, their elderly.”

The summit raised $8.8 billion, exceeding its target, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he hoped it would mark “the moment when the world comes together to unite humanity in the fight against disease.”

About a dozen vaccine candidates are in early stages of testing in thousands of people around the world. There are no guarantees any will work but there’s increasing hope that at least some could be ready by the end of the year. Oxford University is beginning an advanced study involving 10,000 volunteers; the U.S. is preparing for even larger studies in July that involve 30,000 people each testing different candidates, including Oxford’s and one made by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc.

While Oxford scientists say they are committed to making their shot available to all who need it at a fair price, academic Whitworth noted “that doesn’t square with the rhetoric coming from British ministers funding it, saying U.K. citizens will be at the front of the queue.”

And the U.S. has signed a contract with AstraZeneca, which makes the Oxford vaccine, for 300 million doses.

Vaccine makers know they’ll be judged if rich countries buy up all their supply. Thursday, AstraZeneca said it would provide 300 million doses of the Oxford vaccine to GAVI’s new financing mechanism to try to ensure equitable access. The doses will be provided when the vaccine is licensed or pre-qualified by the World Health Organization.

“I’m thinking very carefully what would be the best way to make sure that everybody will get a fair share of the supplies that exist as quickly as possible and that in this fairness we will not forget the unprivileged countries,” said Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. “From the human perspective they have equal rights.”

As countries such as New Zealand and Australia mark progress in containing the pandemic and work on plans to resume some international air travel, others are having to step up precautions.

North Macedonia reintroduced stringent restrictions on movement in its capital, Skopje and three other areas. On Thursday the Health Ministry announced 120 new confirmed cases — the highest increase since the outbreak began — and two deaths.

In the U.S., where a wave of protests is adding to concerns over possible additional outbreaks, new cases have been surging just weeks after many businesses were allowed to reopen.

As of Thursday, more than 6.5 million people worldwide have been confirmed infected with the coronavirus and more than 386,000 have died, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The actual number of infections is thought to be much higher, due to limits on testing and many asymptomatic cases.