UN urges global Covid-19 vaccine plan, warns of dangerous inequity

A mass Covid-19 vaccination drive for healthcare workers in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Feb 4, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - The United Nations on Wednesday (Feb 17) led calls for a coordinated global effort to vaccinate against Covid-19, warning that gaping inequities in initial efforts put the whole planet at risk.

Foreign ministers met virtually for a first-ever UN Security Council session on vaccinations called by current chair Britain, which said the world had a moral duty to act together against the pandemic that has killed more than 2.4 million people.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres voiced alarm that just 10 countries have administered 75 per cent of the first 128 million doses - and 130 countries have had none at all.

He did not give more details on the 10 countries, but according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, at least 81 nations have started vaccinating their populations, with a total of more than 183 million doses administered.

"The world urgently needs a global vaccination plan to bring together all those with the required power, scientific expertise and production and financial capacities," Mr Guterres said.

He said the Group of 20 major economies are in the best position to set up a task force on financing and implementation of global vaccinations and offered full support of the UN.

Mr Guterres said the task force would have the capacity to mobilise the pharmaceutical companies as well as key industry and logistics actors, expressing his readiness to galvanise the entire UN system in support of such an effort. The Group of Seven meeting later this week can create the momentum to mobilise the necessary financial resources, he added.

"If the virus is allowed to spread like wildfire in the Global South, it will mutate again and again. New variants could become more transmissible, more deadly and, potentially, threaten the effectiveness of current vaccines and diagnostics," Mr Guterres said.

"This can prolong the pandemic significantly, enabling the virus to come back to plague the Global North."

Ms Henrietta Fore, head of the UN children's agency Unicef, said: "The only way out of this pandemic for any of us is to ensure vaccinations are available for all of us."

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard denounced the injustice of what he called a deepening gap as wealthy countries monopolise the vaccines.

There is already a plan to help developing nations - Covax is an initiative funded by donors and governments that aims to procure two billion vaccine doses in 2021 with options for a further billion.

Covax will soon be able to start delivery of vaccines after the World Health Organisation approved the shot developed by AstraZeneca, on which the initiative is almost entirely reliant in its first wave.

But aid groups say that many people still risk being left out due to a shortfall in Covax funding to arrange the administration and delicate transportation of vaccines as well as conflicts that make inoculation efforts impossible.

Britain, one of the largest contributors to Covax with a commitment of £548 million (S$1 billion), reiterated a UN call for temporary ceasefires to allow vaccinations, estimating that more than 160 million people were at risk in conflict zones.

"We have a moral duty to act, and a strategic necessity to come together to defeat this virus," Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said.

In his first Security Council appearance, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed that President Joe Biden's administration would take a leadership role after reversing Mr Donald Trump's decision to pull out of the WHO.

Mr Blinken said the United States would pay up its more than US$200 million (S$266 million) in obligations to the UN body by the end of the month and make a significant contribution to Covax.

"The United States will work as a partner to address global challenges," Mr Blinken said.

But Mr Blinken vowed to press for improvements in the WHO, which Mr Trump, under fire for his own handling of the pandemic, accused of being beholden to China and not stopping the deadly virus.

"All countries must make available all data from the earliest days of any outbreak," Mr Blinken said, in a veiled renewal of US criticism that China has not cooperated with a WHO probe into how the virus first emerged in 2019 in Wuhan.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned in his remarks against "attempts to politicise the pandemic" and renewed Beijing's offer of 10 million doses of its homegrown vaccine to Covax.

"We should come together to reject vaccine nationalism," he said.

One immediate question for the UN is whether its own peacekeepers should have priority in vaccination.

India, a leading exporter of vaccines, announced a donation of 200,000 doses for UN peacekeepers.

"The pharmacy of the world is stepping forward to meet the global vaccines challenge," Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said.

One discordant voice at the Security Council was Russia, which has been promoting its own vaccine and only put forward its UN ambassador, Mr Vassily Nebenzia, to the UN session.

He said that vaccinations were a matter "for specialised UN agencies" and "exceed the jurisdiction of the Security Council".

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