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The Coronavirus pandemic will last longer if we ignore other health threats
Theo Clarke MP for Stafford & Angela Richardson MP for Guildford
Before the world was turned upside down by Covid-19, people would be excused for thinking this Thursday’s Global Vaccine Summit had little bearing on their lives, at least here in the UK.
Today, this could not be further from the truth. A successful summit is essential to building strong healthcare systems in some of the world’s poorest countries, without which further crises will be more likely and the pandemic will last longer and cause more damage.
The summit – which is being co-hosted virtually by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London – aims to raise $7.4bn from donors for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, so it can continue its vital work immunising children in the poorest countries in the world against deadly yet preventable diseases.
Gavi, launched in 2000, vaccinates around half the world’s children, sharing the cost of life-saving immunisations against diseases such as measles and polio with developing countries. Before Gavi was set up, just three per cent of low-income countries administered the Haemophilus influenzae type b vaccine that protects against diseases like pneumonia and meningitis. Today, Gavi has enabled all low-income countries to introduce this vaccine.
If Gavi is fully funded, this partnership between governments, the private sector, philanthropists, and civil society aims to save up to eight million lives and vaccinate 300 million children in the next five years.
But Gavi is not solely about vaccinations, it also helps countries build vital infrastructure such as better distribution chains and trains health workers.
While countries focus on responding to Covid-19, we cannot afford to have further disease outbreaks or risk a terrible resurgence of killers such as measles, polio and cholera. Continuing routine vaccination during the current pandemic is essential.
These challenges cannot be dealt with one at a time – fighting Covid-19 and responding to other diseases by strengthening countries' healthcare provision should happen simultaneously. Ensuring the success of Gavi’s work is therefore not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.
The UK can be proud of its leadership – Britain was a founding member of Gavi and the country is continuing to champion access to vaccines. Anne Marie Trevelyan, international development secretary, recently announced that the UK will contribute £330 million per year over the next five years to support Gavi’s work.
Our contribution will not only save millions of lives but it is also a worthwhile investment. For every $1 invested in Gavi immunisations, there is a $21 return in savings from health care costs, lost wages and lost productivity due to illness and death. This investment both protects children and strengthens health systems that are better prepared for new challenges.
When a vaccine against Covid-19 is found, Gavi will play a key role in distributing it in the world’s poorest countries. This is important, as ultimately the exit strategy from Covid-19 is a vaccine that is accessible to everyone. So a successful summit will help lay the groundwork for ending the pandemic – through investment in health systems and distribution mechanisms that will be vital when we find the treatments and vaccines that offer the best means of beating the virus.
We welcome commitments from world leaders at the Coronavirus Global Response Summit on May 4 to making a vaccine equally accessible to everyone. But now these warm words must translate into action if we are to get ahead of this virus once and for all.
We need to focus on the principles that will make this ambition a reality, including knowledge sharing, ensuring affordability and enabling frontline health workers around the world to be among the first to receive the vaccine. Without support for least developed countries to access a vaccine none of us will be truly protected from this global pandemic.
It will take smart policies, effective mechanisms and unprecedented international cooperation to ensure the rollout of a Covid-19 vaccine lives up to this rhetoric. The UK is already a significant contributor to multilateral research and development efforts such as CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) that puts equity at the centre of its mission.
Gavi is well placed to meet this challenge. It has the experience working with manufacturers to produce large quantities of vaccines, reducing their prices, and the breadth of partners to ensure the poorest communities are reached. So, this week's Summit is a critical milestone in efforts to ensure that once developed, a Covid-19 vaccine can be accessible and affordable in every part of the world.
One key lesson we should take from the current situation is the value of vaccines. A worldwide response is in everyone’s interest and it is right that as a truly Global Britain, we continue to take the lead in supporting Gavi. Disease does not respect borders and while this pandemic exists anywhere, it is a potential threat everywhere.