G20 leaders will gather this weekend for a virtual summit aimed at showing the world’s richest, most powerful economies’ cooperation in fighting the coronavirus pandemic — but it remains far from clear if they are willing to put up enough money and political muscle to help needier nations.
At the virtual summit, organized by Saudi Arabia, which currently holds the G20 presidency, the leaders are expected to approve a communiqué committing to supply vaccine doses and medicines, but the initiatives that they created at the outset of the pandemic remain far short of the necessary goals.
At a news conference to preview the gathering, which was supposed to be held in Riyadh, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that nations had committed just $1.8 billion for coronavirus vaccines now in development, and that at least $5 billion would be needed to reach the goal of purchasing two billion doses by the end of next year.
Von der Leyen also said that the wealthy nations had so far put forward just $4 billion of the estimated $38 billion for testing, medicines and other therapeutics needed to deal with COVID-19.
“This pandemic has caused an unprecedented shock to the entire world, in terms of lives lost, livelihoods affected and of course economic costs,” von der Leyen said. “Naturally, our top priority is to stop the virus not only in Europe but in the world. And for this we need to continue investing to make sure that vaccines and therapeutics can be mass-produced and can be distributed globally at affordable prices.”
But many complex questions remain, including how the G20 nations will balance their professed commitment to charity for needier nations against the demands of their own citizens for the fastest possible inoculations, so life can begin to return to normal.
Some public health experts worry that wealthier countries will not only put priority on their own people, but because several different vaccines are being developed, they will also reserve vaccines with the highest effectiveness rates for their own use, while donating the less-effective serums.
The EU has already concluded purchase agreements for vaccines from several manufacturers on behalf of the 27-member bloc. Officials said EU countries are envisioned to use some of their allotment of those vaccines to supply needier nations.
“When the European Union reserves doses of vaccines, it gives the ability to members of the European Union to reserve a part of the stock that is dedicated to them to be distributed toward third party countries, and so it’s this movement that must be amplified,” an Élysée official said. That suggests that the programs endorsed by the G20 could rely far more on voluntarism than on any firm commitment by leaders.
Still, European officials insisted their efforts would succeed. “Within the framework of the G20, by putting in place mechanisms of redistribution of the vaccine that will ensure that everyone has it at the right time,” the Élysée official said.
In addition, the leaders are expected to move forward with other efforts to ease the economic crisis for developing nations, by forgiving or restructuring large amounts of debt.
During their two-day summit, the leaders will also wrestle with tough debates over climate change and global trade — two issues on which U.S. President Donald Trump has created obstacles to cooperation. Some diplomats complained that Trump’s closeness with the Saudi monarchy had obstructed efforts to push the Kingdom to adopt more ambitious targets to fight climate change, and they said that Trump’s bitter rivalry with China had hampered efforts to address numerous problems in the global trading system.
At Friday’s news conference, von der Leyen expressed hope for renewed cooperation with Washington as a result of Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election. The EU is working with Italy, which will hold the G20 presidency next year, to organize a global health summit, and von der Leyen said she now believed the U.S. would support rather than oppose that project.
The U.S. currently holds the presidency of the G7, but leaders have not held a summit this year. A gathering proposed by Trump in the spring was postponed when European leaders refused to travel to the U.S. Trump had initially wanted to hold the summit at one of his golf resorts in Miami, but scrapped those plans amid accusations of self-dealing.
“All countries need to work together for improving global health security,” von der Leyen said. “And while the United States has resisted engaging in this topic so far, I am very helpful now with the new president-elect that this will change. Indeed, the next administration has already committed to increase multilateral cooperation including in the health field.”
At the news conference, European Council President Charles Michel reiterated his recent call for an international “pandemic treaty” that would commit nations to greater cooperation in seeking to prevent future global outbreaks. And he insisted that leaders would do their best to focus on issues that might seem sidelined during the health crisis.
“Our focus this year is squarely on fighting the pandemic but the threat of climate change is no less urgent today than yesterday,” Michel said. “We need to reform the WTO to make our international trade policies greener.”
For Western leaders, the cancelation of the in-person leaders’ gathering as a result of the health risks had one silver lining: allowing them to avoid the awkwardness and complications of making high-profile visits to the Saudi capital without making clear statements on the Kingdom’s human rights abuses, its legacy of mistreating women, and the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Von der Leyen said that human rights, while important, should be considered in the context of the EU’s bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, and not in the framework of its temporary presidency of the G20.
“Indeed, on the bilateral side we follow very closely the situation of human rights in Saudi Arabia, but also of the people defending the fundamental rights, including women’s rights and individual rights, so this is an ongoing topic and it’s a very serious topic,” she said. “But I also want to emphasize that it’s important that we delink the multilateral and the bilateral aspects. And this multilateral forum has a very clear agenda, it has a very strict protocol.”
Jillian Deutsch, Cristina Gallardo and Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a complimentary trial.
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