Leaders of the Group of Seven economic powers are holding their first meeting of 2021 on Friday, and vowing to share coronavirus vaccines with the world's poorest countries — though details of how soon and how much they will give remain scarce.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, which holds the G-7 presidency this year, is meeting virtually with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and the United States to discuss international challenges -- chief among them the pandemic that has killed almost 2.5 million people around the world.
Wealthy nations have snapped up hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines against the virus, while some countries in the developing world have little or none.
Johnson, whose country has had almost 120,000 coronavirus deaths, will promise to give “the majority of any future surplus vaccines” to the U.N.-backed COVAX effort to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable people, and will encourage other G-7 countries to do the same, the British government said.
But Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly said it was is “difficult to say with any kind of certainty” when or how much Britain could donate.
“We’re not really able to give with certainty either a timescale or the numbers involved,” he told the BBC.
French President Emmanuel Macron gave a firmer target, saying Europe and the U.S. should allocate up to 5% of their current COVID-19 vaccine supplies to the poorest countries “very fast, so that people on the ground see it happening.”
In an interview with the Financial Times, Macron noted that Russia and China have been quick to offer doses of their own products to some African nations.
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.
Macron said that “hundreds of millions of vaccines are being given in rich countries” while the vaccination effort in poor countries has barely started.
“It’s an unprecedented acceleration of global inequality and it’s politically unsustainable too because it’s paving the way for a war of influence over vaccines,” he said. “You can see the Chinese strategy, and the Russian strategy too.”
The French president’s office said France was ready to hand over 5% of its doses but would not give exact numbers or a date.
European governments are under pressure to speed up their domestic vaccination campaigns after being outpaced by Britain and the U.S.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, signaled broad support for Macron’s proposal but said details still have to be thrashed out.
Seibert told reporters in Berlin that “there is an understanding in principle with the French president that European countries will hand over some of their stock to poorer countries on other continents that so far have not been supplied."
“When that will happen, in what steps, certainly still has to be discussed," he said.
Development and aid groups said rich Western countries needed to do more, and soon.
“The virus won’t wait on us to be ready before it mutates, so we need to get these vaccines around the world as quickly as possible,” said Romilly Greenhill, U.K. director of anti-poverty group the One Campaign.
America’s G-7 allies are keen to impress President Joe Biden at his first major multilateral engagement since taking office. They are hopeful that U.S. re-engagement with the world following the “America first” years under Donald Trump will mean a more coordinated response on issues including COVID-19 and climate change.
Biden has pledged to join the COVAX initiative, which Trump refused to support, and to distribute $4 billion in U.S. funding to the program.
Friday’s G-7 meeting — and a speech by Biden at the Munich Security Conference the same day — comes the day the United States officially rejoins the Paris climate agreement, the largest international effort to curb global warming. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the landmark accord in 2017.
The Biden administration also said it was ready to join talks with Iran and world powers to discuss a return to the 2015 deal to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions, which was repudiated by Trump.
For Johnson, the G-7 presidency is a chance to demonstrate Britain is still a key global player following its exit from the EU, which became complete at the end of 2020.
A full G-7 summit is scheduled to take place in June at the Carbis Bay seaside resort in southwest England.