Expected Council Action
In February, the Security Council is expected to hold a high-level briefing on COVID-19, with a focus on equitable access to vaccines, especially in conflict-affected areas. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is expected to chair the briefing.
Background and Key Recent Developments
Last year, the Security Council organised several meetings on the COVID-19 pandemic centred around resolution 2532, which demanded a cessation of hostilities in all situations on its agenda to support the Secretary-General’s 23 March 2020 global ceasefire appeal to fight COVID-19 in conflict-affected countries. By late 2020, several COVID-19 vaccines had been developed, and the subsequent rollout of initial vaccinations in a range of countries brought new hope for an end to the pandemic.
A key mechanism for the development of COVID-19 vaccines and for promoting their distribution is COVAX, run by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Gavi vaccine alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. COVAX is one of the four pillars—diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, and health systems—of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator that was launched in April 2020 by the WHO, the European Commission and France in response to the pandemic. The COVAX vaccines pillar includes a funding instrument, backed with official development assistance and contributions from the private sector and philanthropy, to assist 92 middle- and lower-income countries that cannot fully afford to pay for COVID-19 vaccines. Other activities of the COVAX facility are supporting the development of vaccine candidates and negotiating prices.
Concerns about unequal access to the vaccine by wealthy and low-income countries have already materialised in the initial rollout, however. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, addressing the Executive Board of the WHO on 18 January, warned that “the promise of equitable access is at serious risk”. He noted that 39 million doses of vaccine had already been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries, while one low-income country had received just 25 doses. According to Tedros, “some countries and companies continue to prioritize bilateral deals, going around COVAX, driving up prices and attempting to jump to the front of the queue”, and the situation is compounded by manufacturers prioritising regulatory approval in rich countries where profits are highest as opposed to submitting vaccine candidates to the WHO for review.
Secretary-General António Guterres repeated calls in January for COVID-19 vaccines to be a global public good, saying this requires full funding for the ACT Accelerator and its COVAX facility, while raising concerns about what he called “vaccinationalism”. At a Council videoconference (VTC) on 25 January on the implementation of resolution 2532, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo asserted that inequalities in the global recovery and the failure to vaccinate in developing countries, including countries affected by conflict and instability, would be “a severe blow to peace and security”.
A study commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce, released on 25 January, revealed the potential economic impact of failure to distribute vaccines equitably. It concluded that if wealthy nations fully vaccinate by the middle of the year and low-income countries are largely excluded, the global economy would suffer losses totalling as much as $9.2 trillion in 2021. Nearly half of these costs, $4.5 trillion, would be borne by wealthy countries because of continued disruptions to global trade and supply chains. Another more likely scenario, according to the study, found that if developing countries vaccinate half their populations by the end of the year, the world economy would still experience losses between $1.8 trillion to $4.4 trillion, with more than half the losses occurring in wealthy economies. These economic costs, noted the study’s authors, far outweigh the current donor financing needed to procure vaccines for everyone and fully fund the ACT Accelerator, which has a funding gap of $27.2 billion as of 19 January. Referring to this analysis at the Council’s 25 January VTC, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock said, “[t]his is not about generosity but a matter of the self-interest of wealthier countries”.
The global response to the pandemic in 2020 was hampered by tensions between the US and China and US criticism of the WHO. In the Security Council, these tensions led to drawn-out negotiations on resolution 2532, which was adopted more than three months after the Secretary-General’s initial ceasefire appeal. The new US administration of President Joe Biden, however, has already acted to restore US participation in multilateral efforts to address the pandemic. On 20 January, the first day of the new administration, President Biden signed a letter to the Secretary-General retracting the US decision last year to withdraw from the WHO, which would have taken effect on 6 July 2021. The US has also expressed its intention to join COVAX, in which the administration of Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, declined to participate.
At the Council’s 25 January VTC, Council members also heard briefings by Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix and Under-Secretary-General for Operational Support Atul Khare. Lacroix said that across all UN field missions, 2,486 cumulative COVID-19 cases among UN personnel and dependents had been reported, with 24 deaths. Khare described plans to vaccinate UN personnel and dependents worldwide. He said the plans called for cooperating with host countries to include UN personnel in their national vaccine programmes and, where that was not possible, that the UN would seek alternative arrangements. He also noted the convening of a Group of Friends of troop- and police-contributing countries to agree on “pragmatic, coherent and common efforts” to vaccinate troops and police in peacekeeping operations and guard units in special political missions.
Key Issues and Options
Resolution 2532 recognised that the pandemic is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security. In this context, the focus of the meeting will be on COVID-19 vaccines, in particular how to ensure equitable access to vaccines, especially in conflict-affected and fragile countries. Barriers to access, such as vaccine supplies and funding, logistical challenges to delivering and administering vaccines, and humanitarian access in conflict situations are key issues.
Council members may use their national interventions to promote international cooperation and coordination through the main multilateral tool, COVAX, and may appeal for donor funding to support vaccine access for low-income countries. Members may further reiterate the Council’s demand for states and parties to armed conflicts to conclude cessation of hostilities agreements or even encourage the idea of “vaccine pauses”.
The new US administration has already shown that Council dynamics around the pandemic will be different in 2021. Last year, Council meetings on the pandemic were punctuated by US interventions that were highly critical of China and the WHO. In addition, the negotiations on resolution 2532 were made difficult by US opposition to any reference in the text to the WHO. But at the initial 25 January Council briefing, the US administration took a much more conciliatory tone, stressing the central role of the WHO in the global pandemic response and the US commitment to supporting multilateral instruments to facilitate a rapid global vaccine rollout. Until the US announced that it would join the COVAX facility, the US and Russia were among only a handful of countries that had not committed to participate in COVAX.
Another area of difference that has surfaced in Council consideration of the pandemic has been over sanctions. Russia and China often recall, as have other members, their view that unilaterally-imposed sanctions should be waived as they can undermine countries’ capacity to respond to the pandemic.
France and Tunisia served as co-penholders on resolution 2532.
UN DOCUMENTS ON COVID-19
|Security Council Resolution|
|1 July 2020S/RES/2532||This resolution demanded a general and immediate cessation of hostilities in all situations on the Council’s agenda and called upon all parties to armed conflicts to engage immediately in a 90-day humanitarian pause.|
|General Assembly Document|
|2 April 2020A/RES/74/270||This resolution reaffirmed the General Assembly’s “commitment to international cooperation and multilateralism and its strong support for the central role of the UN system in the global response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic”|