UK eyes up Covid-19 vaccine donations to slash £140m of foreign aid

The UK may have cut up to £140m of its foreign aid spending because of a controversial decision to count its donations of surplus Covid-19 vaccines towards that total, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism can reveal.

The decision comes after contentious new guidance that allows 30 rich countries to report last year’s donations of excess vaccines — doses they bought but did not need — as foreign aid, funds reserved for the economic development or welfare of lower-income countries. These guidelines may even allow some countries to count more money as foreign aid than they actually paid.

The guidance suggests counting donations at $6.72 per vaccine, a much higher price than rich nations paid for AstraZeneca doses originally. So countries that donated predominantly AstraZeneca shots — such as the UK — could financially benefit.

Governments can count vaccine donations as aid even if the jabs were never actually administered. They can also claim expenses including syringes and transport, even though the $6.72 guideline price was based on an average cost that included these extras.

Altogether, this could add several billion to the total designated as foreign aid in 2021  — although some countries have said they will not report donated vaccines as foreign aid. The Netherlands, for instance, told the Bureau that “relabelling” donated vaccines as foreign aid could reduce a country’s other development spending.

Because of the structure of the UK’s budget, any vaccine donations reported as foreign aid would equate to money that cannot be spent to help other countries.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), at which delegates from the 30 nations agree foreign aid criteria, said the recommended price of $6.72 is to “provide a simple and robust method, aligned with [global vaccine facility] Covax, while ensuring transparency and comparability in members’ reporting”.

Vaccine hoarding

Critics say rich countries are benefiting from hoarding vaccines. One person with knowledge of discussions around the guidelines told the Bureau: “Our countries collectively cornered the market, bought multiple doses per person  — and now that behaviour is being rewarded.”

A UK spokesperson said that the government is still considering the OECD’s guidance on how to value Covid-19 vaccines. They said the UK has “donated 30-million doses to countries in need already” and is managing the supply so that vaccines are used as quickly as possible in its domestic programme or shared internationally.

Oxfam has called the guidance an “​​insult to the world’s poorest countries” and told the Bureau that the “unacceptably high” guideline price, “leaves the door wide open to rich countries falsely inflating the true cost of donated doses”.

The OECD said that its guidance is a “package of a recommended price and safeguards, including that members should not report in [foreign aid] more than what they actually spent on vaccines.” It said that this information “has been conveyed clearly to DAC [development assistant committee] members”.

However, this isn’t explicitly stated in the safeguards, listed in paragraph five of the guidance cited.

‘Death sentence’ for Yemen

The estimated £144-million that the UK could claim for about28.6-million vaccine donations is close to what it slashed from its 2021-22 aid budget to Yemen. The UN has warned that Yemen faces a looming famine and has described aid cuts for the country as a “death sentence”.

The UK government did not tell the Bureau how much it had paid for AstraZeneca vaccines, but the BMJ reported in January 2021 that it expected to pay $3 per jab. Even if the UK reported donations at this low figure, it would account for about£65m – almost enough to restore the UK’s funding for Unitaid, a health agency that funds medicines and health tools for lower-income countries, to what was originally expected for 2021.

Portugal told the Bureau it paid roughly $2.12 per dose of AstraZeneca and Slovakia told the Bureau it paid, on average, roughly $3.43 per dose. Most countries would not share that information, with several citing commercial confidentiality. OECD guidance says that if the price countries paid is commercially confidential, they should report doses at $6.72 or not at all. For some countries, donated vaccines would account for up to a fifth of their total foreign aid budget.

When asked how it would verify that no country had reported more than it had spent, the OECD said: “Countries’ reporting on [foreign aid] takes place in good faith and as such the secretariat does not play a role of ‘policing’.”

Jérôme Le Roy, an EU official who is chair of the group tasked with maintaining the quality of OECD foreign aid data, said that some countries might “gain a little bit” from the discrepancy in prices, but that it would “average out” because most vaccines, including Moderna and Pfizer, cost more than $6.72. He said there would be “no substantive over-inflation” of aid reporting. “That’s the conclusion we are very much hoping [for],” he told the Bureau.

Unlike the UK, some countries have already decided not to count surplus vaccines as foreign aid. The Netherlands told the Bureau that donated vaccines were “purchased and financed for vaccinating our own population and not for development aid purposes”. Luxembourg also told the Bureau that it will not report excess vaccine donations as foreign aid.

The Bureau understands that the same is true for the US, the largest donor in the group. When this was put to a state department spokesperson, they did not confirm it, but did say that US vaccine donations would come with “no political strings attached”.

The 29 countries and the EU, who are all members of the OECD, could not reach a consensus on the rules for vaccine donations because of a lone objection by Hungary.

As a result, the OECD turned the proposals into non-binding guidance, meaning countries can forego reporting vaccine donations as aid or report them at a different price to $6.72 per dose if they can provide details.

Displaced funds

UK aid spending must, by law, reach 0.5% of the country’s gross national income. The foreign, commonwealth and development Office told the Bureau that aid reporting for vaccine donations would be in addition to the 2021 aid budget, but that the budget would remain within the 0.5% target. The government has said this is because of the growth of national income forecasts.

“We already know that the UK will reduce other [foreign aid allocations] to accommodate these donations, given its rigidly interpreted target,” says Euan Ritchie, policy analyst at the nonprofit thinktank the Center for Global Development. “So the question is not whether some [money] will be displaced, but how much.”

The treasury has not yet decided whether the UK will count its surplus vaccines at $6.72 per dose. But any reduction in spending would “make some people in the treasury happy”, an insider said.

They added that officials were aware of how it would look for the government to be making money off its abundant supply.

According to one former member of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, there was a realisation early last year that the country would have a surplus of vaccines and that they could be distributed among poorer countries in need, but the idea was met with “concrete” refusal from senior officials, who feared jeopardising Britain’s roll-out.

Now, the Bureau understands that further criticism of the UK’s limited efforts in tackling vaccine inequity is “being factored in” to the treasury’s decision-making regarding the OECD guidance.

The UK is also aware that if it decides to claim $6.72 per AstraZeneca dose, rather than the price it actually paid, it sets a “precedent” on the prices reported for future donations of vaccines, which may cost more than that. (The UK is reported to have bought its Pfizer vaccine supply for an initial $20 per dose.)

When contacted by the Bureau for comment, the treasury directed the Bureau to the foreign, commonwealth and development office.

‘Unconscionable intentions’

In a joint statement coordinated in February by the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad), 35 civil society organisations that jointly monitor foreign aid policy-making called on donor countries to “completely abandon” plans to count these types of donations as foreign aid. (Eurodad receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is a major funder of the Bureau’s global health team.)

“These intentions were unconscionable — these vaccine doses were never purchased in the interest of development partners and should not be counted as such,” they wrote. “Indeed, excess purchases of doses in a context of limited global supply were directly responsible for denying access to these life-saving tools in developing countries.”

Allana Kembabazi, programmes manager at the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, a nonprofit organisation based in Uganda, said the guidance was “almost like rewarding bad behaviour”.

Uganda was unable to buy extra shots in the summer of 2021, when only one in 40 Ugandans were vaccinated, because rich countries had bought up supplies. 

Kembabazi recalled the “traumatising” deaths of young Ugandans in hospital as the Delta variant surged. “It felt like we didn’t count,” she said. “It just feels like you give us leftovers — and then you want to really get a lot of credit for giving us leftovers.”

Nerea Craviotto from Eurodad told the Bureau that the guidance sends out the message that rich countries can over-order vital supplies knowing that any excess “can always be donated and reported as aid”.

Countries must send preliminary 2021 aid data to OECD this month. The OECD said: “When preliminary data is published in April 2022, vaccine spending will be clearly identified and each donor can be held accountable by the media and public.” 

This article was originally published by the The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

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