UK at risk of new variants if poorer countries left unvaccinated
Allowing large numbers of people in low and middle-income countries to go unvaccinated is “a reckless approach to public health” that could lead to new variants of Coronavirus, scientists have warned.
More than 320 scientists and public health experts have called for the Government to allow low and middle-income countries to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments for themselves in a letter to the Prime Minister and senior cabinet ministers.
Vaccinating the vast majority of the world’s population is the best way to prevent further coronavirus variants of concern, they say, including variants that are more infectious or render our current vaccines less effective.
The letter has been signed in a personal capacity by thirteen members of the Government’s SAGE committee and subcommittees, a fellow at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and an adviser to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
They join a former chief executive of the NHS, Lord Nigel Crisp; a Nobel Prize winner, Sir Richard Roberts; and several advisers to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Five signatories have received knighthoods or damehoods for services to health and science.
The letter urges the Prime Minister to put public health before the commercial interests of the pharmaceutical industry “to prevent another year of uncertainty and tragedy” by supporting international efforts to suspend intellectual property rules that stop lower-income nations from manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments.
Vaccines will not be effective at stopping new variants of concern from arising “unless we share this technology with the world and increase global vaccination coverage”, they say.
The UK, alongside the EU and Switzerland, is blocking the measure at the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was first proposed by India and South Africa in October 2020 and has support from more than 130 countries.
Scientists are also calling for the Government to “use all means at its disposal” to encourage pharmaceutical companies to share vaccine recipes. They want companies like Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca to work with the World Health Organization to transfer the technology needed to manufacture vaccines to companies in low and middle-income countries.
Experts have identified 100 manufacturers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that are capable of manufacturing mRNA vaccines, if intellectual property rules are suspended and pharmaceutical companies share the recipes and know-how needed.
More than 3 billion people across the world have yet to receive their first dose of Covid-19 vaccine and more boosters have been delivered in rich countries than the total number of all doses administered so far in poorer nations.
Lord Nigel Crisp, former chief executive of NHS England, said: “Throughout this pandemic, the Government has pledged that it will follow the science. The scientific evidence has been clear since the start of the pandemic that the best way to keep ourselves and our NHS safe from new variants is to vaccinate the world. However laudable donations of vaccines might be, they will never be enough to end the pandemic. There is untapped manufacturing capacity in the very nations that need vaccines and treatments most. For the sake of people’s lives in those countries and our own, we must use it.”
Laura Merson, Associate Director of the Infectious Diseases Data Observatory at the University of Oxford, said:
“The easing of plan B restrictions may give the impression that the pandemic is coming to an end. But this won’t be over until we address the risk of new variants at the root, in populations that have not had access to vaccines. The protection provided by boosters will be tragically limited if most of the world remains unvaccinated.”
Maryam Shahmanesh, Professor of Global Health at University College London, said: “Scientific knowledge should be shared, but the UK has helped a handful of companies privatise vaccine recipes that should be a public good. By ignoring the demands of low and middle-income countries and stifling global vaccine production with arbitrary intellectual property rules, the government risks prolonging the pandemic and endangering countless lives. We need a complete stop-change if we are to bring this pandemic to an end for everyone.”
The Omicron variant was first identified in Botswana and South Africa, although it may have first developed in any number of neighbouring countries. Fewer than one in ten people across the African continent are fully vaccinated. The World Health Organization has established a mechanism for sharing vaccine technology and a manufacturing hub in South Africa for mRNA vaccines, but both have been boycotted by major pharmaceutical companies.
In September, Amnesty International found that major pharmaceutical companies were fuelling an “unprecedented human rights crisis” by withholding vaccine technology from manufacturers in the global south.
The letter was coordinated by scientists working with groups including Global Justice Now and is addressed to Prime Minister Boris Johnson; Health Secretary Sajid Javid, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.
The full letter and list of 324 signatures is available here: https://bit.ly/3g0eBJ2