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The Global Vaccine Divide Looms Large Ahead of G-7 Summit

While most G-7 nations have plenty of vaccine doses, poorer countries still go without.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
A worker disinfects boxes of COVID-19 vaccines.
A worker disinfects boxes of Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines as part of the COVAX program, which aims to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccinations, after they arrived at the Ivato International Airport in Antananarivo, Madagascar, on May 8. MAMYRAEL/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Pressure grows on G-7 for a global vaccine plan, U.S. President Joe Biden arrives in the United Kingdom, and Albania votes on impeaching its president. 

The G-7’s Vaccine Challenge

As G-7 leaders prepare for Friday’s two-day summit in England, pressure is building for the countries to do more to address the glaring COVID-19 vaccine divide between rich and poor countries.

World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the emergence of a “two-track pandemic” at a news conference on Monday, pointing out that high-income countries had given out 44 percent of the world’s vaccine doses while low-income countries had given out 0.4 percent of them. “The most frustrating thing about this statistic is that it hasnt changed in months,” Tedros said.

Evidence of the divide is clear from the way life is rapidly returning to normal in rich nations that struck bilateral deals to secure vaccines ahead of poorer nations. With the exception of Japan, whose vaccine program began much later, on average G-7 countries have given out 76 vaccine doses per 100 residents. South American countries have given roughly 31 doses per 100 residents while African countries have given out less than three doses per 100 residents.

Aggressive vaccine programs have allowed these countries to jump-start their economies and restart tourism. Last week, seven European Union countries began using a vaccine passport system. In the United States, 41 out of 50 states have returned to normal business. Japan, a laggard on vaccines compared to the rest of the G-7, is still planning to host the Olympic Games in Tokyo in July.

The vaccine divide comes with a price tag. The World Bank revised its 2021 growth forecast to 5.6 percent—the strongest recovery from a recession since 1940—driven by U.S. stimulus spending and Chinese growth. Still, the bank warns that emerging economies with lagging vaccine access will see a slower growth rate.

G-7 pressure. Plans to distribute vaccines have so far fallen well short of what’s needed to end the pandemic quickly. COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), the WHO-backed initiative formed with the goal of providing 2 billion vaccine doses to poorer countries by the end of 2021, has fallen far short of its goal, hampered by poor vaccine supply and a lack of funds. To address the initiative’s shortfall, the United Nations Children’s Fund has called on G-7 nations to commit to sharing 20 percent of their vaccine supplies—roughly 150 million doses—between June and August.

EU hurdles. Proposals to speed up vaccine access, such as a plan put forward by India and South Africa to waive patent rights on vaccines and other COVID-19-related tools at the World Trade Organization, have so far been stymied by richer nations. Although the United States now backs a limited version of India and South Africa’s proposal, the European Union does not. The European Parliament will vote today on whether to endorse the waiver, even though the body already rejected the proposal when it was brought up in April.

Band-Aids. Although China leads the world on vaccine exports, the United States—with 80 million doses committed—is the top vaccine donor. G-7 member France comes second, with 30 million doses committed. Those relatively low numbers with billions of people still unvaccinated has left some health experts unimpressed. Speaking to the New York Times in May, global health activist Gregg Gonsalves said U.S. donations—absent a broader strategy to increase vaccine access—were “like putting a Band-Aid on a machete wound.”

“Vaccinating the few while neglecting the many is not an effective game plan for stamping out the virus,” Bogolo Kenewendo wrote in Foreign Policy on June 8, as she called for a multilateral strategy to address vaccine inequities.

What We’re Following Today

Biden arrives in U.K. U.S. President Joe Biden arrives today in England at the beginning of a weeklong European tour, which includes the G-7 summit in Cornwall, England; NATO and EU summits in Brussels; and ends with a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Biden begins his trip today by meeting with U.S. Air Force personnel stationed at a Royal Air Force base roughly 80 miles north of London, before meeting on Thursday with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson one on one. 

Mongolia votes. Mongolians vote today for a new president, only its sixth democratically elected head of state. Khurelsukh Ukhnaa, who resigned as prime minister amid protests last year, is the favorite to win, a victory that would consolidate power for the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), which already controls the country’s parliament. It’s the first election to take place since a constitutional amendment limiting presidents to one six-year term, a move that made incumbent President Battulga Khaltmaa ineligible for today’s election.

Albania’s impeachment. Albania’s parliament will vote today on whether to impeach Albanian President Ilir Meta over accusations he violated his constitutional duties by supporting the country’s opposition in the April 25 general election. The ruling Socialist Party, which holds 74 out of 140 votes in Albania’s parliament, needs the support of other parties to reach the two-thirds majority necessary to force Meta’s removal. If the parliament votes to impeach him, Albania’s constitutional court will rule on whether to uphold the decision.

Keep an Eye On

Saudi-Syria ties. Saudi Arabia and Syria are close to normalizing diplomatic relations, according to a report from Al Jazeera. The two countries have been at odds over Saudi Arabia’s support for rebel groups seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war—and more broadly for Syria’s close relationship with Iran. The rapprochement comes as Iran and Saudi Arabia have begun normalization discussions themselves, facilitated by Iraq.

Investigating COVID-19’s origins. The European Union has decided to back the United States in its push for a new study into the origins of the coronavirus in China, as intelligence communities continue to question whether the virus spread from a lab leak in Wuhan, Bloomberg News reported on Tuesday.

A World Health Organization report from March pointed to animals as the most likely origin of the virus, but the investigation, which has been called a “propaganda victory” for Chinese authorities and relied on data from Chinese scientists, didn’t exactly satisfy skeptics. In a draft statement ahead of the U.S.-EU summit on June 15, the countries “call for progress on a transparent, evidence-based, and expert-led WHO-convened phase 2 study on the origins of COVID-19, that is free from interference.”

Odds and Ends

Friday’s G-7 summit in Cornwall, in the southwest of England, has caused controversy before it has even begun, stirred up by the venue’s alleged low quality. Adam Raphael, editor of The Good Hotel Guide, has condemned the choice of the Carbis Bay Hotel and Estate, which will host many of the G-7 leaders, as “cruel and unusual punishment,” suggesting a nearby hotel would have made more sense as a meeting place. Reader reviews of the hotel, Raphael wrote, “do not inspire confidence. It has never had an entry in the Guide, and probably never will.”

Although the accommodations may not be to everyone’s liking, they are still an improvement on the lodgings the U.S. Secret Service will endure. With the popular vacation destination booked out by world leaders and British holiday-makers alike, the agents will instead be staying in camper vans at an air base roughly 20 miles from the summit.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn