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Why the search for a Covid-19 vaccine must be international

Without the involvement of the US, China and India, efforts to solve the crisis will fail. The UK must work to bring them to the table.

By Lisa Nandy

There is only one way out of the Covid-19 crisis: a vaccine. To develop, manufacture and distribute a vaccine will take funding, collaboration and support from countries with manufacturing capacity, and a shared recognition that the virus cannot be defeated by one nation alone. While some countries are urging for global cooperation, populist voices are arguing now is the time to pull apart.

This is a battle we must win and one that the UK cannot shy away from. On 4 May the government took a first step by joining global leaders – from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, Saudi Arabia and the European Commission – in co-hosting an international pledging conference to raise the money needed to fund the development of a vaccine.

On the same day, a separate meeting was held between political leaders from the Non-Aligned Movement, including the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, and the secretary-general of the UN, António Guterres. While the call for global cooperation in defeating Covid-19 was echoed at both international gatherings, the parallel nature of the discussions showed more must be done to better coordinate a global response.

What is now needed now is a concerted international effort to develop, manufacture and distribute it and without the involvement of the US, China and India it will fail. That is why the UK must use all its influence to bring those countries to the table. Together, they will need to take three steps.

Firstly, with close to 100 vaccines currently in development, and every day bringing new infections and loss of life, the world cannot afford duplication or unnecessary delay. Major drug companies, academic institutions, such as the Wellcome Trust and Oxford University, and private laboratories will have to work together across the world to share data, science, knowledge and results. It will also require large sums of money for international institutions such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which searches for vaccines at a global level, and for the World Health Organisation.

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This is hard. China and the US are currently engaged in a war of words and Trump has suspended funding for the World Health Organisation. The EU has been divided over the amount of support to provide to member states and it was months after the Wuhan outbreak before global leaders even met, in stark contrast to the 2008 financial crash, when a five-point plan of action was agreed by G7 finance ministers within weeks of the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

The US, China and Russia were notably absent from yesterday’s international conferences. As a member of both the G7 and the G20, the UK must use this influence to press for all countries to come to the table. Secondly, we must ensure the world can produce enough doses of a vaccine to get it out to people quickly. The development, manufacture and distribution of any effective vaccine will require a concerted and coordinated international effort. China and India have already stepped in to manufacture personal protective equipment, tests and paracetamol for the UK. We need them to enlist in the global effort to manufacture a vaccine too.

Finally, the principle of equal access is critical: to defeat the virus anywhere means defeating it everywhere. In Africa, where social distancing is more difficult to implement, and testing capacity and healthcare systems more fragile, a UN report suggests that infections could number in the hundreds of millions in the worst-case scenario. Refugee camps also pose a huge challenge. Without access to the vaccine not only will people continue to die but the risk of a second wave of Covid-19 infections is will continue to threaten.

The US has already reportedly shown a readiness to pay for exclusive access to a vaccine (the German firm concerned denies the claims). We must challenge this isolationism, or the health crisis will re-emerge and the global economic impact will continue to worsen. This crisis has shown that the world is only as strong as the most vulnerable.

The UK’s engagement in the global initiative to fund a vaccine this week is a positive first step, but we must now use our influence around the world to encourage others to join this collective fight. The populations of India, China, the US and Russia total almost half of the global population. If we are going to overcome the threat posed by Covid-19, it will be through shared objectives in this common endeavour. The UK must now step up efforts to press for a truly global response.