Protecting our NHS and economy means ending the pandemic globally – the UK can make this happen

We have so much to be proud of in our nation’s response to the pandemic. It is with urgency, and in the face of the new variant announced this week, that we must consider how best we can protect this progress whilst championing our global reputation as a reliable international partner.

Over the past 20 months we have had limits on our freedom like never seen before in my lifetime. Our primary objective must be ensuring everyone worldwide can restore their lives back to normal as swiftly as possible. 

In other nations, such as Austria and Germany, we are already seeing freedoms being limited again as Covid-19 cases surge. This should be a stark warning for us in the UK.

The threat to our recovery from new variants is real; none of us are safe until all of us are safe. The new B.1.1.529 variant we have seen emerge over the past few days, which could be more infectious than the Delta variant and potentially resistant to existing vaccines, is a reminder of this harsh reality. 

We cannot guarantee that our successful vaccination programme will remain so if new variants mutate to be resistant to our existing vaccines. The longer people go unvaccinated in other parts of the world, the greater the risk of variants. And let’s also not forget that UK businesses are reliant on global supply chains and movement of persons – which remain at risk from Covid-19.

Put simply, we need to vaccinate the world – fast.

It is no secret that access to Covid-19 vaccines, as well as treatments and diagnostic tools, is vastly unequal. As the UK has been rolling out a successful booster programme, in low income countries the figure for those fully vaccinated stands at less than 3 per cent. And in some countries such as Ethiopia, as little as 1.2 per cent of the population are fully vaccinated.

This poses a moral challenge for us as a society. Whilst it’s right that we protect everyone in the UK as quickly as possible, we cannot turn our backs with the knowledge that health workers on the front line of the pandemic in countries such as Ethiopia or Uganda are trying to save lives now but are themselves still unprotected from this virus. Allowing this moral failure to persist is completely out of line with British Conservative values.

One of the key obstacles preventing us from getting higher vaccination rates globally is a limit to global supply. As it currently stands, a quarter of all vaccines have been delivered to high income countries while the world’s poorest countries have received less than 1 per cent of the total supply. COVAX, the facility to deliver vaccines to low- and middle-income countries, has been priced out of the market and now reliant on charity – at best, COVAX will help vaccinate only 23 per cent of people in these countries by the end of 2021.

Now, pharmaceutical companies have worked at incredible speed to develop vaccines that have been crucial in getting us to this point. However, when we have a global crisis of this scale, we have to come together collectively. There is a moral imperative for pharmaceutical companies to be part of the solution and work with the Government, such as how we’ve seen AstraZeneca providing vaccines at cost-price.

And while donations are welcome, they have been slow to be dispersed – 14 per cent of the 1.8 billion doses promised by G7 countries have been delivered to date. And even this promised figure falls far short of filling the global vaccine void with nearly half of all people across the world not fully vaccinated.

Yet, there are many more manufacturers that could be making vaccines, but they are limited by the intellectual property barriers and a lack of sharing of know-how from pharmaceutical companies. Whilst useful in many circumstances, in this instance, we can see intellectual property law limiting production to a small number of pharmaceutical companies. 

This has strangled supply, inflating vaccine prices beyond their market value; the UK alone has potentially paid £1.8 billion more than the estimated cost of production for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Whilst already questionable whether richer nations should be bearing such high cost, it is proving deadly for lower and middle-income nations.

Right now, the fastest, most-effective way to increase global vaccination rates is through a temporary waiving of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments combined with measures to ensure the know-how of how to make them is shared. In my experience as a GP and as Chair of the APPG on Global Health, I believe this is the right thing to do to get more vaccines in more arms at speed.

That’s why I’ve joined over 90 of my fellow parliamentarians from across both houses in writing to the International Trade Secretary asking her to support a temporary waiver of intellectual property on Covid-19 technologies – known as the TRIPS waiver – at the World Trade Organisation. 

The TRIPS waiver has been tabled by South Africa and India, and is supported by over 100 other countries, including the USA and Australia. This would allow more vaccines to be produced, more locally and across more regions, thus increasing the supply and helping this pandemic come to an end sooner.

The UK must ensure we don’t risk losing the progress we’ve made in building back better – reopening our economy and protecting our NHS. As trade ministers meet at the WTO’s Twelfth Ministerial Conference from tomorrow, our Government has a chance to do the smart thing, and the right thing, by joining our global partners to implement the TRIPS waiver, and vaccinate the world before it is too late.

  • Dr Dan Poulter MP is an NHS hospital doctor, working in mental health services, who has served as the Conservative MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich since May 2010. He is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Health and Vice-Chair of the APPG on Coronavirus.

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