It is “morally wrong” to offer Covid-19 jabs to children in wealthy countries when high-risk groups in poorer nations remain unvaccinated, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group has said.
Professor Andrew Pollard, who helped develop the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 jab, said global vaccine inequity was “plain to see”.
His comments come as it emerged that the UK has secured enough vaccine to offer the Pfizer jab for use in children aged 12 and older if it is clinically approved.
But Prof Pollard said that children had a “near-to-zero” risk of severe disease or death from Covid-19.
And the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that some countries were only just beginning to vaccinate those at highest risk from Covid-19.
Prof Pollard told the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus: “When you look at the overall aim of a global vaccination programme in a pandemic, it’s to stop people dying.
“And we know who those people are – that’s the over-50s, it’s those who’ve got health conditions and to some extent also healthcare workers and so those are the priority groups.
“We are in a situation at the moment where there are many unvaccinated people in the world but not enough doses for everyone yet.
“But there are many unvaccinated people in the world, whilst people whose risk is extremely low are being vaccinated, including children, who have near-to-zero the risk of severe disease or death.
“That inequity is absolutely plain to see at this moment in a very troubling way as we see the images from South Asia on our televisions of the awful circumstances now – colleagues that are just facing the most appalling circumstances, they’re not working in a situation where there’s an NHS to support them.
“And it feels completely wrong to be in a situation morally where we were allowing that to happen, whilst in many countries vaccines are being rolled out to younger and younger populations at very, very low risk.”
He added that not having vaccine equity around the world was also a risk to health security, adding: “If we have better distribution of vaccines, there is some downward pressure on variants of concern.”
The University of Oxford and AstraZeneca committed previously to providing their Covid-19 vaccine on a not-for-profit basis for the duration of the pandemic across the world, and in perpetuity to low and middle-income countries.
On Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the UK had secured enough of the Pfizer vaccine to offer it to those over the age of 12 if the jab was licensed for use among children in the UK.
The jab has already been approved for use among those over the age of 12 in the US.
Prof Pollard said if people were purely looking at the UK then expanding vaccines to younger age groups “makes sense”, but he said that should not be happening when there was a global crisis.
Professor Kate O’Brien, from the WHO, said there was an “enormous gap in equity” between vaccine distribution and access in high-income countries compared to low-income countries.
She told the parliamentarians: “Some countries, including the UK, are advancing well beyond that highest priority group.
“Some countries (are) considering immunisation of children, which is really about a transmission objective.
“We have this really substantial gap between what some countries are achieving in terms of access and immunisation, while at the same time other countries are at the beginning of covering those highest priority groups.
“It poses risks for every country for variants of concern.
“And from an economic perspective, we are so interconnected around the world that the recovery of the economy domestically is dependent on a recovery globally as well.”
Professor Gavin Yamey, director of the Centre for Policy Impact in Global Health at Duke University in the US, said he was worried that richer countries would hoard vaccines for potential booster shots needed in the future.
“I really think we need to acknowledge that it’s fine to continue donating, but there has to be a long-term vision – this pandemic could be with us for years, is it really just going to be charity, you know, drip, drip, drip of a few doses from rich countries? That’s not a long-term vision,” he said.
Prof O’Brien added that more action could be taken by high-income countries and manufacturers to release vaccines quickly.
This could include countries who had secured early access deals, and manufacturers, to release doses to the vaccine-sharing facility Covax.
“Firstly, it really is about countries allowing manufacturers to put Covax first in the line,” she said.
“Secondly, releasing doses that they already have access to. Third is raw material release as well. And finally, fully funding Covax.”