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Editorial: Vaccine pledges and the G7: imperial hypocrisy

BORIS JOHNSON’S brass neck in claiming, as the G7 opens, that his government has “led the way in efforts to protect humanity” against Covid-19 takes the biscuit.

He says so just a day after World Trade Organisation talks on a temporary intellectual property waiver for Covid vaccines ended without agreement because of resistance from just four naysayers — Britain, the EU, Switzerland and South Korea.

His new boast that Britain will provide 100 million doses to poorer countries comes just after US President Joe Biden made a similarly dramatic pledge of 500 million jabs for the Third World.

The commitments are undoubtedly welcome, but as health officials such as the World Health Organisation’s Fifa Rahman warn, these do not represent immediate shipments — just five million of the doses Johnson talks of will have been donated by the end of September — and huge swathes of the world are struggling to cope with the virus right now.

At least Biden’s offer is combined with qualified support for a vaccine patent waiver which would allow developing countries to produce their own vaccines rather than wait for handouts from the handful of rich nations that have so far appropriated almost the entire supply, with just 0.4 per cent of inoculations worldwide having been administered in low-income countries.

But it too has more than an element of political posturing. 

The US has developed a new eagerness to help other countries eliminate the virus — we might recall that under Donald Trump last year, the US tried to buy exclusive rights to other countries’ vaccines, tightened sanctions on Iran and Venezuela despite the impact on their healthcare systems as the pandemic raged and even blocked shipments of medical equipment to Cuba.

Biden’s attitude is an improvement. But US officials scarcely try to hide the fact that it is motivated more by rivalry with China than by solidarity with developing countries.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan compares the provision of vaccines to the role US manufacturing played in supplying arms, clothing and other supplies to its allies during the second world war, when its location between two huge oceans spared it the intensive bombing that affected British and Soviet production.

“We were the arsenal of democracy in World War II,” Sullivan says. “We’re going to be the ‘arsenal of vaccines’ over this next period.”

Just as the war analogy downplays the contribution of other countries, most obviously the Soviet Union, to the defeat of fascism, the vaccine boasts ignore the fact that so far US vaccine supplies to other countries — projected to hit 80 million by the end of the month — are dwarfed by the number supplied by China (350 million). Britain hasn’t sent any.

The one-upmanship wouldn’t matter if it took the form of a genuine competition to be the country that does the most to fight Covid-19 worldwide. But the US motive — to show that Western “democracies are the countries that can best deliver solutions for people everywhere” — also inspires uglier behaviour.

That’s why the US president has ordered his spooks to look again at claims Covid-19 escaped from a communist lab — a theory widely mocked when raised by his predecessor, and rejected by international scientists in the World Health Organisation (WHO) probe into virus origins earlier this year.

Britain and now the EU have signed up to this farce, which sidelines the WHO, politicises the effort to learn all we can about the virus’s origins, undermines international co-operation in healthcare and thereby hampers the global fight against Covid-19.

The vaccine pledges are welcome but the politics of the G7 conference are already clear. This is about reasserting US global supremacy and the right of Western countries to write the rules and dictate the terms of international production and exchange. The theme will no doubt amplify over the course of the Nato and US-EU summits next week.

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