Gordon Brown urges emergency Covid vaccine airlift to Africa

Former UK prime minister says operation could be under way within days if world leaders signed off

More than 100,000 lives can be saved in Africa by undertaking the emergency airlift of 240m unused vaccines in the next fortnight, Gordon Brown has urged.

The former prime minister called on a group of rich nations to back “the biggest peacetime public policy decision” by supporting an October airlift that would see unused vaccines handed to parts of the global south struggling the most.

Brown is using his role as an adviser to the World Health Organization (WHO) to push for a more ambitious plan to deliver vaccines to Africa, amid continuing international concern over the shortage. With only 5% of the population vaccinated in Africa, Brown urged the leaders of the US, the EU, Canada and the UK to back an emergency airlift. He said that 40% of Covid deaths in Africa had happened since the start of August, making the need for action urgent.

“While vaccines have been pledged for donation from all donors, we are not getting the vaccines into people’s arms and urgently need a month-to-month timetable to meet our interim targets and prevent further loss of lives,” Brown told the Observer. “An immediate emergency airlift of 240m vaccines this month from the global north to the global south should be followed by the transfer of a further 760m vaccines transferred by February. This would be the biggest peacetime public policy decision, which could save 100,000 lives and prevent many of the one million Covid-induced deaths projected over the next year.”

He said that sending excess vaccines to Covax, the international bulk-purchasing agency, is the best way of meeting the WHO target of vaccinating 40% of the global south by December and 70% by next summer.

Analysis by research group Airfinity, which gives country-by-country figures for surplus vaccines, suggests that 100,000 lives could be saved with airlifts this month alone. Brown said its data showed 230m more could be transferred by the end November, 112m more in December, 280m more in January, and 240m more in February. These vaccines would be in addition to the vaccines already promised to Africa.

“Vital time to contain Covid, stop mutations and save lives is being wasted,” Brown said. “It needs our political leaders to step up to the sign-off. Every passing day is a day lost in the battle to contain Covid and save lives. As long as health workers remain unvaccinated and the vulnerable elderly have no protection against Covid-19, deaths in the poorest countries will rise, and there the disease threatens to spread uninhibited in unprotected environments, giving rise to new variants that could eventually infect even the fully vaccinated.”

Brown, who is now a WHO ambassador for global health financing, is pressing Joe Biden, Ursula von der Leyen, Boris Johnson and Justin Trudeau to attend an emergency summit – ahead of the G20 meeting to be held in Rome at the end of this month – and agree the airlift, which could be under way within days. Brown has sent a briefing of his plans to US secretary of state Antony Blinken.

There remain serious concerns that, as well as costing thousands of lives in Africa, allowing Covid to run rampant across the continent could lead to the emergence of new variants that escape the current vaccines created to contain it. Brown said he believed the mass transfer of unused vaccines around the globe could save a million lives over the next year.

The project would require the nations involved to mobilise aircraft and ground support for an unparalleled distribution of vaccines to 92 low-income countries where deaths are rising and vaccination rates are at 5%. Brown said that Britain will have 55m surplus vaccines over the next four months, which could be transferred as part of an ambitious proposal to transfer £1.1bn unused vaccines between now and February.

His intervention comes after President Biden announced more vaccine donations this week during a meeting with Kenyan leader Uhuru Kenyatta.


Michael Savage

The GuardianTramp

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