UN chief urges global plan to reverse unfair vaccine access

International

In this image made from UNTV video, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks during a U.N. Security Council high-level meeting on COVID-19 recovery focusing on vaccinations, chaired by British Foreign Secretary Dominc Raab, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, at UN headquarters, in New York. (UNTV via AP)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sharply criticized the “wildly uneven and unfair” distribution of COVID-19 vaccines on Wednesday, saying 10 countries have administered 75 percent of all vaccinations and demanding a global effort to get all people in every nation vaccinated as soon as possible.

The U.N. chief told a high-level meeting of the U.N. Security Council that 130 countries have not received a single dose of vaccine and declared that “at this critical moment, vaccine equity is the biggest moral test before the global community.”

Guterres called for an urgent Global Vaccination Plan to bring together those with the power to ensure equitable vaccine distribution — scientists, vaccine producers and those who can fund the effort.

And he called on the world’s major economic powers in the Group of 20 to establish an emergency task force to establish a plan and coordinate its implementation and financing. He said the task force should have the capacity “to mobilize the pharmaceutical companies and key industry and logistics actors.”

Guterres said Friday’s meeting of the Group of Seven major industrialized nations — the United States, Germany, Japan, Britain, France, Canada and Italy — “can create the momentum to mobilize the necessary financial resources.”

Thirteen ministers addressed the virtual council meeting organized by Britain on improving access to COVID-19 vaccinations, including in conflict areas.

The coronavirus has infected more than 109 million people and killed at least 2.4 million of them. As manufacturers struggle to ramp up production of vaccines, many countries complain of being left out and even rich nations are facing shortages and domestic complaints.

The World Health Organization’s COVAX program, an ambitious project to buy and deliver coronavirus vaccines for the world’s poorest people, has already missed its own goal of beginning coronavirus vaccinations in poor countries at the same time that shots were rolled out in rich countries. WHO says COVAX needs $5 billion in 2021.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the council the Biden administration “will work with our partners across the globe to expand manufacturing and distribution capacity and to increase access, including to marginalized populations.”

President Joe Biden has rejoined the WHO and Blinken announced that by the end of February the United States will pay over $200 million in previously assessed and current obligations to the U.N. agency, which Washington will seek to reform.

America’s top diplomat said the U.S. also plans to provide “significant financial support” to COVAX through the GAVI vaccine alliance, and will work to strengthen other multilateral initiatives involved in the global COVID-19 response. He gave no details.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticized the growing “immunity divide” and called on the world to “come together to reject `vaccine nationalism,’ promote fair and equitable distribution of vaccines, and, in particular, make them accessible and affordable for developing countries, including those in conflict.”

At WHO’s request, he said, China will contribute 10 million doses of vaccines to COVAX “preliminarily.”

China has donated vaccines to 53 developing countries including Somalia, Iraq, South Sudan and Palestine, which is a U.N. observer state. It has also exported vaccines to 22 countries, he said, adding that Beijing has launched research and development cooperation on COVID-19 with more than 10 countries.

India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar also called for a halt to “vaccine nationalism” and encouragement for internationalism. “Hoarding superfluous doses will defeat our efforts towards attaining collective health security,” he warned.

Jaishankar said India has been at the forefront of the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, initially providing medicine, ventilators and personal protective equipment and now directly sending made-in-India vaccines to 25 nations across the world, with 49 additional countries from Europe and Latin America to Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands slated to receive vaccines “in the coming days.”

Two vaccines, including one developed in India, have been granted emergency authorization, the minister said, and as many as 30 vaccine candidates are in various stages of development.

Jaishankar announced “a gift of 200,000 doses” of vaccine for about 90,000 U.N. peacekeepers serving in a dozen hotspots around the world.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, whose country is currently president of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, called for speeding up COVAX and stopping the ”undue hoarding” and “monopolization of vaccines.”

He urged that priority be given to countries with limited resources, saying “it’s been pointed out that these countries won’t have generalized access until the middle of 2023 if current trends persist.”

“What we are seeing is a huge gap,” Ebrard said. “In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever seen such a huge division affecting so many in such a short space of time. That is why it’s important to reverse this.”

He urged the international community not to establish mechanisms that could prevent the speedy delivery of vaccines but instead to strengthen supply chains “that will promote and guarantee universal access.”

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, whose country holds the Security Council presidency this month and presided at the virtual meeting, urged the U.N.’s most powerful body to adopt a resolution calling for local cease-fires in conflict zones to allow the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.

“Cease-fires have been used to vaccinate the most vulnerable communities in the past,” he said. “There’s no reason why we can’t… We have seen it in the past to deliver polio vaccines to children in Afghanistan, just to take one example.”

Britain says more than 160 million people are at risk of being excluded from coronavirus vaccinations because they live in countries engulfed in conflict and instability, including Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia.

Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Barbara Woodward said: “Humanitarian organizations and U.N. agencies need the full backing of the council to be able to carry out the job we are asking them to do.”

Britain has drafted a Security Council resolution that the U.K. hopes will be adopted in the coming weeks, she said.

Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, objected to the council focusing on equitable access to vaccines, saying this went beyond its mandate to preserve international peace and security.

Indicating Moscow was not interested in a new resolution. he said Russia is ready to discuss progress on implementing the only resolution the Security Council has adopted on the pandemic. After three months of difficult negotiations, the council last July 1 endorsed fhe secretary-general’s call for cease-fires in major global conflicts to tackle COVID-19.

Britain’s Raab argued that the council needs to follow up and call for cease-fires “specifically to enable COVID vaccines to be carried out in those areas so badly affected by conflict.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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