09 June 2021
The G7 is the only gathering that can truly help vaccinate the world
The decisions of G7 leaders this weekend could literally be a matter of life and death
This Friday, the leaders of the world's largest “advanced economies” – the G7 – will gather for a three-day summit at Carbis Bay in Cornwall.
The gathering takes place in the shadow of a pandemic that from its early stages revealed the weakness of global cooperation between governments, just when it was most needed: we have all learned over the last year just how much a global pandemic necessitates global cooperation.
Yet all too often in this pandemic we have witnessed political leaders seemingly incapable of transcending narrow national interests by offering global leadership worthy of the moment.
Providing such leadership is certainly hard. In 2009, ahead of the G20 meeting in London, I travelled with the then UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to meet with leaders including President Lula of Brazil, President Michelle Bachelet of Chile and the then Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden.
To observe Gordon Brown in these pre-meetings was to witness a combination of intellectual clarity on the economic problems confronting us, political determination to overcome them, and the sheer physical stamina required to visit capitals, as well as work the phones, to build a consensus for action.
In recent months President Biden’s arrival has heralded a new era of US global leadership, with his administration determined to prove “America is back”.
The first fruits of this renewed leadership involved the US rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change and joining COVAX, the initiative created to ensure equitable access to Covid vaccines.
Yet last weekend we witnessed anew the difference American global leadership can make when G7 finance ministers signed off a landmark agreement on global taxation.
While it is not as ambitious as many tax justice campaigners had hoped, it would be churlish to deny that a global minimum corporate tax rate is a progressive step in the right direction.
With finance ministers’ coffers in every country depleted by the pandemic, in the space of just a couple of months, the corporate tax proposals were moved by that combination of intellectual clarity, political determination and sheer negotiating stamina, which took them from the margins to the mainstream.
Let us hope that we see a similar combination of attributes, and leadership, in the months leading up to the vital Glasgow COP26 in November that aims to chart a course to a net-zero world.
But with a landmark agreement reached by finance ministers on global taxation last weekend, what should G7 leaders prioritise this weekend?
As the G7 meets, less than 2% of Sub Saharan Africa has been vaccinated. The pandemic we are still living through, with a global death tally of nearly 3.5 million, has both exposed and deepened the inequalities that scar our world.
The uneven recovery from the pandemic, in a world further divided between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, risks a lost decade of delivery for development unless decisive action is taken.
Boris Johnson, who as UK Prime Minister will chair the G7 Summit, has already briefed out that he will call on fellow leaders to “rise to the greatest challenge of the post-war era” and ensure the world’s population is vaccinated by the end of 2022.
Yet, sadly if rather characteristically, there was no plan – politically, operationally, or financially – to achieve this worthy goal.
Of course “dose sharing”, whereby rich countries donate their spare vaccines either bilaterally or to COVAX, which can then allocate them on the basis of need, has a role to play, and so too does ramping up global production of the life-saving vaccines.
But as I learned as the UK’s International Development Secretary, guaranteed long-term financing is the only sure foundation for a global vaccine rollout.
The guarantee of finance spurs the build-up in manufacturing capacity and supply chain capability, together with providing a guaranteed market for pharmaceutical companies that, in turn, can facilitate the transfer of technology.
Norway and South Africa have now tabled a burden-sharing plan (modelled on the burden-sharing mechanism devised to finance the eradication of smallpox) that would provide that guaranteed long-term financing.
Their proposal requires the G7 members to cover the costs of up to two-thirds of the finance required to vaccinate the world. The rest of the financing required could then be met by the other members of the G20 and others including the oil-producing Gulf states.
There is only one gathering in the world that combines the political and financial power to make this happen. That gathering is the G7. This weekend they and they alone can will the means as well as the ends.
The pandemic has taught us that none of us are safe until all of us are safe. Dose sharing – the voluntary donation of spare vaccines by G7 members – is necessary but wholly insufficient to vaccinate the world by 2022.
What is needed is a plan to guarantee long-term financing of vaccines. The Norwegians and South Africans have now tabled such a plan.
What is now needed from the G7 leaders is that important combination of intellectual clarity, political determination and sheer negotiating stamina required to agree such a plan.
For the billions who remain unvaccinated around the world, the decisions of G7 leaders this weekend could literally be a matter of life and death.
Financing the vaccination of the world is epidemiologically, ethically and strategically simply the right thing to do.
Douglas Alexander is a Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, and former UK Secretary of State for International Development.