Plan by wealthy nations to treat COVID vaccines as aid prompts backlash

I [Byron Ortiz/Shutterstock]

The question of how COVID vaccines donated by wealthy countries are classified and priced could artificially raise the European Union’s development aid figures by billions of euros, EURACTIV understands.

The unequal access to COVID vaccines has been one of the most hotly disputed topics during the last year of the pandemic, both within Europe and across the world.

In June, donor countries agreed to report their COVID-19 vaccine donations as Official Development Assistance, starting in 2020.

At the next meeting of the Paris–based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) in January 2022, they will have agreed on a price tag for these vaccines.

The latest proposal being considered by donor countries has suggested a price per vaccine of $6.72, more than double the previous proposal of $3 per vaccine. Based on the pledges made by the EU and its member states, that could increase the bloc’s official development assistance (ODA) by up to €5 billion in the next two years, despite no additional finance being provided.

In previous year, the debates at the DAC over what can be classified as aid have focused on spending on migration control, loans, and military support.

“Wealthy countries in the global north ordered vast quantities of COVID-19 vaccines while they were in development and are now sitting on stockpiles approaching their expiry date,” said Nerea Craviotto, senior policy and advocacy officer at the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad).

“These vaccines were never purchased for development purposes, and they should not be termed as such,” she added.

“We are yet to see the DAC issue any ODA-eligibility criteria for the sharing of doses. Without shared principles and safeguards, there is a huge risk that donors could use vaccine reallocation to inflate their ODA contributions, while the vaccines themselves may never reach those they are intended to benefit.”

OECD DAC members, which include 19 EU member states, are expected to reach a final agreement on pricing and classification in December. The question will be on the agenda at a three-day meeting of the DAC Working Party on Development Finance Statistics, starting on 22 November.

Donations to the COVAX initiative, intended to serve as the international coordinator of vaccine supplies, are also to be classified as official aid.

The EU is the second-largest donor to COVAX behind the United States. However, COVAX has faced its own supply chain difficulties and has struggled to deliver large volumes of vaccine doses to developing countries.

Critics point out that ‘vaccine nationalism’ by wealthy western states and the EU has created a situation where developing countries could not purchase their own supplies of jabs, and that counting the COVID doses as ODA would effectively be rewarding that behaviour.

The EU, UK, and Japan have also led the opposition to a campaign by India and South Africa to temporarily waive the intellectual property protection for COVID vaccines and allow themselves and developing countries to produce their own generic versions of vaccines.

A decision on the patent waiver campaign is expected to be made at a World Trade Organisation meeting later this month.

Sources close to the talks told EURACTIV that the DAC members are divided over the price per vaccine. Others would like the pricing to differentiate between the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which are more expensive, and the Astrazeneca dose.

Italy and Belgium are among the countries happy with the price, while Sweden is among those wanting the prices to be aligned with the market rate. Reservations about the price plan have also been expressed by the UK, the Netherlands, and Finland, EURACTIV understands.

Although the international community has backed a World Health Organisation target to vaccine 70% of the world by next April, just 261 million of the 1.8 billion doses pledged by wealthy nations, have arrived in low-income countries, equivalent to 14%. The EU has promised to donate 500 million jabs.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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