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Covid falls off world leaders’ agenda despite remaining threat from the virus

·5 min read
Jonathan Ernst

TELFS, Austria — A year ago, when world leaders gathered at the annual Group of Seven summit, the Covid pandemic was omnipresent — from restrictions on those traveling for the gathering to the pledge by those present to donate a billion vaccine doses.

But as the leaders of the wealthiest democracies met again this week in the Bavarian Alps, combating the pandemic had fallen off the agenda, even as much of the developing world remains unvaccinated and health officials warn of another winter surge.

There were no announcements about new efforts to fight the coronavirus or expand access to vaccines or treatments, no masks were worn in public by world leaders, and there were no vaccine or testing requirements for those traveling to the summit. President Joe Biden made no mention of the virus in any of his remarks.

In joint statement issued at the end of the summit the leaders made a relatively briefing mention of fighting the pandemic, saying they would continue supporting efforts to expand access to vaccines and treatments and study the effects of long Covid.

"To overcome the COVID-19 pandemic now, we reaffirm our commitment to enabling equitable global access to and delivery of safe, effective, quality-assured and affordable vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, and other essential medical goods," the statement said.

Instead, leaders focused largely on steps to increase the pressure on Russia, including additional sanctions, a ban on Russian gold imports and a possible price cap on Russian oil exports. Other topics high on the agenda included addressing global food shortages caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and launching an infrastructure push to counter Chinese influence in the developing world.

The fading of Covid from the conversation reflects a wider fatigue with the pandemic among wealthier countries where vaccines are now prevalent and death rates have been consistently low for several months, public health experts said. But in lower-income countries, the threat of Covid still looms large, with just over 15% of the populations in those countries having received a single dose of a vaccine.

Public health experts warn that the low vaccination rates not only put millions of lives at risk but also increase the odds of the virus’s mutating in ways that could put those who are vaccinated at greater risk. There has also been no access for those in lower-income countries to a new antiviral pill from Pfizer that reduces the risk of hospitalizations and death.

“They don’t really have an appetite to do that much more to address the incredible inequities that still exist. A very small share of the population in sub-Saharan Africa has received their primary doses of vaccines, and that is just a huge disparity,” said Jen Kates, the director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “So we’re basically leaving people out from the protections that most of us have been able to access. Certainly, there’s more to be done, and there’s more we need to do in the U.S., but a lot of leaders seem to look elsewhere.”

At last year’s G-7 meeting, world leaders pledged 1 billion coronavirus vaccine doses to poorer countries, with the U.S. committing to half of the doses. Since then, the U.S. has increased its pledge to 1.2 billion, significantly more than any other country.

But despite the large commitments of vaccine doses, the U.S. and other donors have struggled to get those shots into arms. So far, the U.S. has shipped only about half of the 1.2 billion total because of logistical issues around refrigeration capacity, a shortage of vaccinators and a lack of demand in some countries, the White House has said.

Solving those challenges will take additional funding that Congress has so far refused to approve.

Biden has been seeking $5 billion from Congress for efforts to fight the virus overseas as part of a wider $22 billion Covid spending package. But the White House has been unable to get any of the funds passed through Congress, even for new vaccines for people in the U.S. come the fall, leaving it without any money to help other countries with their efforts.

Covid has subsided as a major cause of death in recent months in much of the world, even in places with low vaccination rates, because so many people have already been infected and the latest mutation of the virus hasn't proven to be particularly deadly, said Christopher Murray, the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. But that could quickly change as the virus continues to mutate.

"The reason there isn't a lot of G-7 discussion" is that "things look good for now," Murray said. "The big question is whether a new variant that has immune escape — so it can infect all the people who've got immunity from natural infection and is more severe — emerges. And that nobody knows."

Murray said the most efficient use of resources to protect against a new variant would be to make sure antiviral medications, like Pfizer's, are more widely available in poorer countries with low vaccination rates.

"Probably the most important strategy for a new variant will be getting antiviral access to everyone who needs it, and I think that's where the G-7 should be paying attention," Murray said.

While Pfizer entered a licensing agreement to allow generic versions of Paxlovid to be sold in a number of lower-income countries, the complex manufacturing process for the pill has made it difficult for generic drugmakers to make low-cost copies, Murray said.

More than 5.6 billion people globally have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, about 66% of the world’s population, but large parts of the populations of many countries across Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe remain unvaccinated, according to figures from the Our World in Data project of the Global Change Data Lab, affiliated with the University of Oxford.