A global health summit that underlined the growing disparity between rich and poor countries during the pandemic closed Friday with pledges by pharmaceutical companies to deliver more than 1.3 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to low- and middle-income countries this year.
Italian Premier Mario Draghi, host of the Rome summit that brought together the Group of 20 and the European Union’s executive arm, called the contributions by private companies “significant and staggering.”
The pledges made include 1 billion doses from American pharmaceutical company Pfizer and German company BioNTech’s, 200 million from Johnson & Johnson and 100 million from Moderna. They will be provided at cost for low-income countries and at a low profit for middle-income countries.
Pfizer and BioNTech pledged an additional 1 billion for next year, while European Union nations promised another 100 million doses for this year.
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Many of the European deliveries will take place place through the U.N.-backed COVAX program, said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who co-hosted the summit. COVAX aims to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 shots for low-and middle-income countries.
Earlier this week, the program suffered a major setback when its biggest supplier, the Serum Institute of India, announced it would likely not export any more vaccines until the end of the year due to COVID-19 crisis on the subcontinent.
The pharmaceutical companies did not specify if their pledges would be fulfilled under any particular umbrella.
But Draghi said the commitments made Friday in some measure reflect “a desire to remediate the injustices and inequities when in the most difficult moments some closed themselves and ignored the rest of the world.”
Both he and von der Leyen expressed confidence that the pledges would be honored.
“These companies have committed their whole reputations to this. It is a very, very important move that really will change the landscape,” Draghi said, adding that international organizations like the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization would have a role in ensuring the commitments.
Von der Leyen said the doses pledged by European countries were carefully considered, “so we feel responsible and accountable.”
As vaccination campaigns continue to progress in the Western world, poorer countries are struggling to acquire supplies. The U.N. Security Council expressed concern this week about the small number of doses that have reached Africa.
Last week, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged rich countries to donate their vaccines before immunizing younger populations, including children. Experts warn that allowing the virus to spread unchecked anywhere in the world could lead to the emergence of potentially dangerous variants.
During Friday’s global health summit in Rome, Draghi said that nearly 1.5 billion vaccine doses have been administered in over 180 countries worldwide. Yet only 0.3% were in low-income countries, while richer countries administered around 85%.
“The differences in the vaccination rates are staggering,” the Italian leader said. “Not only are these disparities unacceptable, they are also a threat so long as the virus continues to circulate freely around the world it can mutate dangerously and undermine even the most successful vaccination campaign.”
To address inequalities and contain the pandemic, the head of the World Trade Organization said on the eve of the summit that it’s also crucial to diversify vaccine manufacturing and to have more production taking place in Africa and Latin America. The European Union raised many of the same points WTO Director-General Okonjo-Iweala made, specifically looking to increase manufacturing production in Africa.
“Today, Africa imports 99% of its vaccines, and this has to change,” EU executive von der Leyen said. “And therefore, team Europe is launching an initiative with African partners to develop vaccine production in Africa. The initiative will develop a number of regional hubs distributed across the continent and it will draw on the full toolbox of team Europe, including 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) of investment.”
Despite a recent call by the United States to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents as a way to increase supplies, participants at the summit were expected to insist that intellectual property rights were an important tool to boost vaccine production.
There is a lack of consensus among EU countries on a temporary waiver of patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines. EU officials have argued that waiving patents would yield no short-term or intermediate improvement and could even have a negative impact.
Draghi said Italy is open to the idea on the condition that the any waiver measure is “targeted and time-limited and does not undermine incentives for pharmaceutical companies to innovate.”