G20 leaders pledge to distribute Covid vaccines fairly around world

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic Editor
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Saudi Press Agency/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Saudi Press Agency/Reuters

G20 leaders meeting remotely pledged on Sunday to “spare no effort” to ensure the fair distribution of coronavirus vaccines worldwide, but offered no specific new funding to meet that goal.

The virtual summit hosted by Saudi Arabia was an awkward swan song for Donald Trump, who skipped some sessions on Saturday to play golf, paid little attention to other leaders’ speeches and claimed the Paris climate agreement was designed not to save the planet but to the kill the US economy.

Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the accord on day one of his presidency, giving other world leaders hope that the UN climate change conference at the end of next year will see more ambitious pledges, including from China, to cut carbon emissions by 2050.

Trump’s isolationist diplomacy has allowed China to escape some scrutiny both on its climate and debt forgiveness measures. “To protect American workers, I withdrew the country from the unjust Paris agreement,” Trump told the G20.

“I refuse to surrender millions of American jobs and send trillions of American dollars to the world’s worst polluters and environmental offenders, and that’s what would have happened.”

The bulk of the summit focused on ensuring that the coronavirus vaccines expected to hit the market imminently are available for distribution at affordable prices in poorer countries.

The EU and the UN say there is a £4.5bn funding shortfall this year that the G20 nations should fill. Countries have so far invested $10bn in the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator and its vaccine pillar, the Covax Facility. The two schemes are designed to ensure the vaccines do not remain the preserve of the wealthiest economies.

The UN secretary general, António Guterres, said: “The recent breakthroughs on Covid-19 vaccines offer a ray of hope. But that ray of hope needs to reach everyone. That means ensuring that vaccines are treated as a global public good, a people’s vaccine accessible and affordable to everyone, everywhere,” he said.

“This is not a ‘do-good’ exercise. It is the only way to stop the pandemic dead in its tracks. Solidarity is indeed survival.”

The final G20 communique simply said: “We have mobilised resources to address the immediate financing needs in global health to support the research, development, manufacturing and distribution of safe and effective Covid-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.

“We will spare no effort to ensure their affordable and equitable access for all people, consistent with members’ commitments to incentivise innovation.” It gave no supporting evidence or statistics.

In a sign of the competition for access to vaccines and national prestige, Russia said its Sputnik V would be much cheaper than those offered by Pfizer and Moderna.

Vladimir Putin attends the G20 summit via video conference.
Vladimir Putin attends the G20 summit via video conference. Photograph: Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

Russia said a single dose of Pfizer’s vaccinewould cost $19.50 (£14.70) and Modena’s between $25 and $37, and noted that two doses would be needed.

The summit also discussed how to help stave off possible credit defaults among developing nations as their debt soars in the economic upheaval the virus has unleashed. The G20 had already extended a debt service suspension initiative (DSSI) for developing countries until June next year, but Guterres had pushed for a commitment to extend it until the end of 2021.

The draft communique did not offer a firm commitment, as countries wait to see the scale of the international debt crisis. G20 finance ministers will instead examine the recommendation when the IMF and World Bank meet next spring and see “if the economic and financial situation requires” another six-month extension. Italy will chair the G20 in 2021.

The president of the World Bank, David Malpass, had told the G20 creditors at the meeting: “We have to avoid doing too little now and then suffering disorderly defaults and repeated debt restructurings like in the 1980s.”

Saudi Arabia, as the summit host, had come under assault from human rights groups in advance, but largely escaped any public criticism from world leaders.

Saudi leaders hit back at those urging them to release female detainees and said it would not take no notice of those trying to interfere in its internal affairs. Investors were less concerned by such issues than journalists, they said.

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, also insisted Riyadh be consulted before the US returns to the Iran nuclear deal and welcomed Trump administration plans to designate the Houthi movement in Yemen as a terrorist organisation. Yemen is on the brink of famine, the UN said on Friday.