Commonwealth health ministers have issued a joint statement after their annual meeting in which they called for swift and equal access to COVID-19 vaccines for everyone around the world.

In the statement on behalf of the 54 Commonwealth member countries, they expressed deep concern over the stark gaps in access and delivery of doses, especially in poor countries, and called for “fair and transparent” pricing for the vaccine. Only 0.3 per cent of the life-saving vaccine doses have been administered in 29 poor countries. About 84 per cent of shots have been given in high and upper-middle-income countries.

Speaking at the meeting, the Commonwealth Secretary-General the Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC said: “The science is clear: vaccination works and is the clear and only sustainable route out of this pandemic for the whole world.

“The rise of new variants shows that until everyone is safe no one is safe. No plan to tackle this virus will work until everyone agrees to work together. We must talk with each other to move away from some stockpiling vaccines, while many low-middle income countries still do not have access to the much-needed vaccines supplies for the vulnerable populations in their countries.

“So, co-operation to develop a global immunisation plan to deliver equal access to vaccines must be a top priority.” Health ministers appreciated the global vaccine equity initiative ‘COVAX’ and encouraged all partners to support government efforts on boosting vaccine confidence and immunisation drives.

Recognising the acute gaps in research and development of new tests, vaccines and therapies in the Commonwealth, they stressed enhanced collaboration with scientists, academics and business leaders.

In his guest address, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “Vaccines are reducing severe disease and death in countries that are fortunate enough to have them in sufficient quantities, and early results suggest that vaccines might also drive down transmission.

“The shocking global disparity in access to vaccines remains one of the biggest risks to ending the pandemic. We seek the support of the Commonwealth in solving the global vaccine crisis by funding the ACT Accelerator, advocating for greater sharing of technology, know-how and intellectual property, and sharing doses with COVAX.”

Ministers further backed a potential treaty on the fight against pandemics and a Commonwealth mechanism to share and distribute extra medical supplies such as ventilators and medicines. They called on Heads of Government to allocate resources for strengthening health systems, especially through primary health care, towards attaining universal health coverage.

Chairing the meeting, India’s Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan said: “Accelerating coordinated action for ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and building resilient global healthcare systems is the need of the hour.

“In our closely interlinked world, we need greater transparency to quickly identify and contain emerging health threats. Sharing best practices, strategies and solutions shall ensure preparedness against all future challenges.”

Health ministers welcomed the creation of a technical group to share practical solutions and policy advice on helping countries with the pandemic response and recovery. New data shows 60 immunisation campaigns for other health threats are currently suspended in 50 countries due to COVID-19. Such delays could cause significant avoidable mortality.

Disruptions to HIV/AIDS services, for instance, could lead to five thousand excess deaths globally.
Ministers, therefore, committed to keeping essential health services running and sustaining the gains made towards tackling threats such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, avoidable blindness and non-communicable diseases while dealing with an influx of COVID-19 cases. In their statement, they further voiced their support for a common framework for sovereign debt treatments, co-operation with the WHO and improved compliance with the International Health Regulation - international laws for preventing the spread of disease.

This is the second time that Commonwealth health ministers met virtually for their annual gathering due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The meeting, hosted by the Commonwealth Secretariat, took place on 20 and 21 May.