Europe joins U.S. in pledging major vaccine donations to developing countries

May 21, 2021, 2:45 PM UTC

The European Union will donate at least 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to developing countries this year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced Friday.

The EU’s top official also confirmed that the EU will invest €1 billion ($1.2 billion) in African vaccine manufacturing facilities to help the continent become more self-sufficient in fighting the coronavirus.

“We must step up efforts to give access to vaccines to low and middle income countries,” von der Leyen tweeted Friday. “We will do our part: #TeamEurope aims at donating at least 100 million doses to low and middle income countries by the end of 2021.”

A Commission spokesperson told Fortune the doses would be donated by EU member states such as Germany and France, either through the COVAX facility—a U.N.-backed program for distributing COVID vaccines to low and middle income countries—or bilaterally.

The move comes after the U.S. said Monday that it will donate 20 million Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses to such countries, on top of the 60 million AstraZeneca doses it has already pledged to give, subject to a safety review. The U.S. will also make a “substantial portion” of those donations through COVAX.

Boosting jabs

Speaking Friday at the Global Health Summit, von der Leyen also noted that the EU’s “industrial partners”—the vaccine manufacturers—have pledged to make 1.3 billion doses available to low- and middle-income countries this year.

That includes 100 million doses from Moderna, 200 million from J&J, and 1 billion from Pfizer and BioNTech—which will also supply up to 1.8 billion doses to the EU from December through 2023, under a much-anticipated deal that was made official on Thursday. All the doses in the Pfizer/BioNTech agreement will be made in the EU, which has a population of just under 450 million.

Both the EU and the U.S. have made solid progress in their own vaccination campaigns—the U.S. more so, with nearly half the population having received at least one dose; a third of people in the EU can claim the same.

In poorer parts of the world, it’s a very different story. Just over 10% of people in India have received a first dose, while in Africa the figure stands at a mere 1.4%.

This inequality has for months been criticized by everyone from the World Health Organization to the International Monetary Fund and the Pope, and it is only recently that rich countries have been making their pledges.

The EU has, however, already promised €500 million in grant funding and guarantees to the COVAX facility. The U.S. has donated $2 billion to COVAX in recent months.

Patents and politics

The Biden administration has also given its backing to the increasingly popular idea of waiving patents on COVID-19 vaccines, in order to stimulate production around the world. The EU remains opposed to that notion, instead arguing that the compulsory licensing of vaccine patents could be the way forward.

Ultimately, von der Leyen said Friday, all regions need to be able to make their own vaccines.

“Preventing future health emergencies means strengthening capacities throughout the world,” she said. “Today, Africa imports 99% of its vaccines. This has to change. Therefore, Team Europe is launching an initiative with African partners to develop vaccine production in Africa. The initiative will develop a number of regional hubs distributed across the continent and it will draw on the full toolbox of Team Europe, including €1 billion of investment.”

Apart from the moral imperative and the fact that vaccinating the world is the only way to fight the emergence of dangerous new COVID variants, there is also a diplomatic motive behind the U.S. and EU pledges. China and Russia have been amassing a great deal of soft power through their supply of vaccines to poorer countries, and the West has catching-up to do.

The U.S.’s pledge on Monday inspired a grudging editorial in the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times, which noted that “China has been offering vaccines and medical supplies to developing countries for nearly half a year” while sneering that “Chinese observers…expressed doubts over whether developing countries in urgent need of vaccines will actually receive them considering the U.S.’ stock-in-trade of sloganeering despite inaction.”

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