Writing in The Independent, the former prime minister warned that the virus has so far been “smarter and swifter than us” and said a “completely new approach” was needed if mankind is to keep ahead of the disease and avoid the emergence of a new strain which is resistant to vaccines.
As the UK and EU squabble over the allocation of AstraZeneca jabs, Mr Blair said it was time to end the “mad scramble” of vaccine nationalism and start cooperating to ensure that all countries get “fair and equitable” access to protection.
With any unvaccinated area providing a potential pool for new strains of Covid to develop and reinfect the world, extending immunisation to the whole world was “not only a matter of altruistic engagement but of enlightened self-interest”, he said, warning: “Virus anywhere is virus everywhere.”
The emergence of virulent new variants discovered in Kent, South Africa and Brazil has raised the possibility that future waves of coronavirus could be worse than those experienced in 2020, he said.
“This year was supposed to be the year we returned to some sort of normal,” said the former PM.
“Right now, we can’t even be sure that this year won’t be worse than last year. That is a horrible thing to say, but the sooner we confront reality, the sooner we make that prospect much less likely.”
Mr Blair’s intervention follows his high-profile call in The Independent in December for the reach of vaccination to be maximised by delaying the administration of booster jabs – a policy shortly afterwards adopted by Boris Johnson’s government.
Today, he said that nations around the world must “learn the lessons of the past year” and ditch vaccine nationalism in favour of cooperation.
“The question which should be asked of policymakers in government is not what is possible, but what is necessary,” he said.
“It is true that extraordinary efforts have been made, and that systems have been under the most intense strain doing everything that is possible to combat Covid-19. But the blunt fact is: it hasn’t been enough.”
Mr Blair called for a partnership between public and private sector and between governments around the world to create capacity on every continent for vaccine production and associated bioscience capabilities.
– Capacity to develop vaccines, antivirals and biologics at speed.
– Research and development facilities.
– Data systems capable of capture information in a fast, comprehensive and globally comparable way.
– Instantaneous distribution mechanisms.
– Fast and accurate tests for disease.
– Surveillance systems for early tracking of mutations.
He said: “I believe every larger population nation – certainly in the developed world and many in the developing world – will face a demand from their people that they have national capacity for vaccine production and associated bio-science capability.
“And the world must come together to make sure that such capacity exists on every continent, with provision in place for the fair and equitable distribution of all that is necessary to combat the disease effectively.”
Describing the challenge of coronavirus as “unique in complexity and scale”, Mr Blair warned that the disease could not be treated as a temporary problem from which the world will eventually return to normal.
“It is now clear that what we are dealing with is not a crisis with a beginning and an end, but a new state of the world,” he said.
And he warned: “So far, the virus has moved with greater agility and intelligence than humanity. The virus has mutated; the new strains are more transmissible yet not apparently less deadly.
“It will continue mutating. Vaccines will likely require adjustment to beat such mutations; and there is an outside, but not unfortunately negligible, risk that, at some point, unless we get ahead of the virus, there will be a mutation not susceptible to vaccine, in which case we will need a new range of antiviral and other biologics to counter it, as the world has learnt to do with HIV/AIDS.”
It was vital to get to a position where the identification of any new strain can be followed in a matter of weeks with the manufacture at enormous scale of a vaccine to counter it, he said.
This will require fast sequencing of any new strain; repurposing of capacity for the manufacture of vaccine; development of better rapid tests; co-ordination between regulatory bodies for speedy clearance of new drugs; and an overhaul of clinical trial procedures.
And he said a high-level group, including representatives of science, medicine, the pharmaceutical industry, manufacturing, distribution and logistics, should be established to guide decision-making by governments.
“At the same time, we should start to put in place the long-term global health infrastructure which will mean we are on top of future pandemics,” said Mr Blair.
“But it all starts with a recognition that up to now, the virus has been smarter and swifter than us; and this is what must change.”