BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s top official said Wednesday that ramping up COVID-19 vaccinations around the world was the bloc’s No. 1 priority right now and committed another 200 million vaccine doses to Africa and low-income nations.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used her State of the European Union speech on Wednesday to announce the new donation that will be fully delivered by the middle of next year and comes on top of 250 million vaccine doses already pledged.
Even when rich nations are already contemplating giving a third booster vaccine shot to large swathes of their populations, most of the world’s poorer nations are still waiting to be fully vaccinated, laying bare an acute sense of vaccine inequality.
“Our first and most urgent priority is to speed up global vaccination,” von der Leyen told European parliamentarians in a plenary left nearly empty because of continued virus regulations.
Von der Leyen said the bloc was also investing 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) to boost increased vaccine production capacity in Africa.
African health officials say they need just under 800 million doses to vaccinate 60% of the continent’s population. As of last week, 145 million doses had been procured, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Just 3.5% of people across the continent of 1.3 billion people have been fully vaccinated, the CDC says, amid frustrations over hoarding, vaccine export controls and now the rollout of booster shots in richer countries.
Reacting to von der Leyen’s announcement, Jagoda Munic, the director of Friends of the Earth Europe, said the EU should make COVID-19 vaccines and treatments a public good, accessible to everyone instead of relying on vaccine donations.
“We are witnessing a global vaccine apartheid,” she said. “People in the Global South least responsible for the climate crisis and least protected from it, are now being left unprotected from the pandemic. This compounding of injustice is at odds with European values and solidarity.”
Von der Leyen stressed that on top of delivering 700 million vaccine doses to Europeans, the 27-nation bloc had also sent as many shots to 130 nations.
“We are the only region in the world to achieve this,” she said. “With less than 1% of global doses administered to lower income countries, the scale of injustice and the level of urgency is obvious.”
Even though the EU had allowed vaccine exports even when its own population was still struggling to get enough doses, the challenge to get the world vaccinated remains immense.
“Let’s do everything possible to ensure that this does not turn into a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” she said.
The European Commission president did acknowledge that the bloc was initially caught unaware, lagging the U.S. and Britain in vaccination rates before regrouping and meeting its goal of having 70% of EU adults vaccinated this summer.
She lauded the preparations to set up the HERA emergency preparedness and response authority and insisted that academic science and private sector knowledge should be joined up with government authorities in a new group backed by 50 billion euros ($60 billion) in funding by 2027.
Sam Petrequin from Brussels and Cara Anna from Nairobi contributed to this report.
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