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29 January 2021

There’s something we’re missing on the UK/EU vaccine rollouts

The path to normality runs through the global vaccine roll-out, not anything the UK or the European Commission do. 

By Stephen Bush

The Novavax vaccine has performed well in trials – and, more significantly, as well against the United Kingdom’s new, highly transmissible variant of coronavirus, and well against the new South African variant in patients without HIV. 

In Britain, it matters because if Novavax is approved for use by UK regulator the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) it will increase the amount of vaccine supply. But in a global context, it matters more because it is the first vaccine to perform well in trials against the South African mutation – at 60 per cent effectiveness for trial patients without HIV, it works about as well as the TB jab. It’s further proof of concept that vaccines can be developed to combat new strains of Covid.

While the focus at Westminster is on how well the United Kingdom is performing compared to the European Union in its vaccine roll-out – though that difference might vanish overnight if Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is approved for use – the path to returning to normality runs not through anything the United Kingdom or the European Commission do within their own borders but in the global vaccine roll-out. 

While dangerous new mutations can occur at any time, they are most likely to occur in people with compromised or weakened immune systems. And South Africa and much of sub-Saharan Africa has higher numbers of those people because wealthy nations’ reaction to the last global pandemic, of HIV/Aids, was to stop paying attention once it ceased to be deadly in the Global North. 

[see also: My grandad devoted his career to learning the lessons of Aids. Now we risk forgetting them]

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For a country like ours, travel quarantines, setting aside the holes in the UK’s own quarantine policy, are always going to be imperfect and unsustainable as a long-term solution. The only way to prevent a repeat of the past horrific year is widespread global vaccination and financial support for vaccination efforts in the Global South – something that we are still a way away from. As MPs debate and vote on the government’s plans to cut foreign aid, you’d hope that fact alone would be cause for a rethink.