Enhancing UK action and promoting equity of access to global covid-19 vaccines

Richer nations have a vital role to play in ensuring equity of access to covid-19 vaccines around the world, say Maggie Rae and Helen Stokes-Lampard

As representatives of the UK’s public health and medical workforce, we have come together to urge the government to go further and move faster in its actions to assure global access to covid-19 vaccines.

While it is right that we celebrate the UK’s progress on covid-19 vaccination, and crucial that we all continue to drive forward work on our domestic programme, we must also be ever cognisant that we cannot tackle covid-19 in isolation.

The UK is an international leader in healthcare, as the mobilisation of our world-leading system in vaccine development and delivery has demonstrated. Having now ordered sufficient numbers of doses to vaccinate the domestic adult population four times over, it is incumbent upon the government to support low-income countries to more effectively deliver their own vaccination programmes.

While the UK has already committed to sharing “surplus” doses, the government is yet to define which indicators will be used to determine at what point these doses should be shared with countries least able to secure supply. And though we support the leadership that the UK has already shown in committing £548 million funding to the Covax initiative, we must go further and with a sense of urgency; especially as we see the Covax programme running behind schedule due to production delays and pressures from multiple bilateral contracts.

In a globally interdependent world, unless we ensure that all countries can access and distribute the covid-19 vaccine effectively, we will continue to suffer the health and economic consequences of this global pandemic throughout the UK.

Aside from the loss of life and economic costs that will continue to be borne by countries unable to develop effective vaccination programmes, continued transmission of the virus risks creating further variants of concern and seeing them being brought into the UK. Costs to the global economy of vaccine inequity are estimated at $9.2 trillion. The huge impact of this on the economies of wealthy nations, and the massive further toll this will take on communities already at a disadvantage cannot be understated.

It is important that we act to empower low and middle-income countries to produce and deliver vaccines locally. The UK should support the rapid development of the manufacturing capacity of trusted vaccine producers in developing countries. Actions to ensure this include removal of material intellectual property barriers in line with World Trade Organisation provisions, direct capital investment, and sharing of production processes.

We must also remember that delivering a successful vaccination programme requires more than vials of vaccine. Effective networks of distribution are just as important as the material supply of the vaccine. The government must recognise our role as international health system leaders and share our knowledge and resource to support lower-income countries in overcoming the logistical challenges presented by vaccine delivery.

Building on the success of the UK vaccination programme to date, we call on the government to:

  • Release 30% of its pre-purchased covid-19 vaccine orders to countries least able to secure supply
  • Invest in and support scaling up local manufacturing capacity, including in low and middle-income countries to boost vaccine supply
  • Support health system strengthening to ensure countries can safely and effectively deliver vaccine roll-out to their whole populations

While there is still much work to do in delivering our own domestic vaccination programme, including removing barriers to access for marginalised communities and continuing to inform and educate the whole population, this government is keen to show global leadership. Covid-19 is self-evidently a global challenge and the UK would do well to take a lead in demonstrating that richer nations have a vital role to play around the world. 

In our roles as President of the Faculty of Public Health and Chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, we look forward to working with the UK Government to build on our collective achievements to date and deliver on these goals for global vaccine equity. It is vital that we all act with compassion, recognising the human suffering and our responsibility as public health and healthcare professionals for both individuals and populations as a whole. 

Maggie Rae, president, Faculty of Public Health.

Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair, Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.

Competing interests: none declared.