UK's use of aid for COVID-19 tools could breach international rules, politicians say

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U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the Jenner Institute in Oxford where coronavirus research is being carried out. Photo by: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — British politicians have said the aid budget should not be used for research and development of COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments, despite government spending of around £310 million ($510 million) in this area.

Non-aid funds should instead be used to support these efforts, freeing up the aid budget to deal with the secondary impacts of the pandemic, according to a report by the International Development Committee, a cross-party group of politicians responsible for scrutinizing U.K. development work.

“We need a clear distinction of funding; R&D for a coronavirus cure, for the benefit of all around the world, cannot get backdoor funding from our depleting aid budget,” said IDC Chair Sarah Champion. “ODA [official development assistance] funding is needed for vaccination distribution regardless of wealth and for tackling the appalling secondary impacts that the pandemic has inflicted.”

Coronavirus vaccine research doesn't count as ODA, says OECD

Despite some donors using their aid budgets to fund research into vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, it cannot be reported as official development assistance, according to the body that sets the rules.

The IDC report said it was not clear if the government’s extensive funding of research and development for COVID-19 tools had been done in line with internationally agreed principles of aid spending, as defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Development Assistance Committee.

OECD DAC has ruled on a preliminary basis that “research for a vaccine/tests/treatments for COVID-19 would not count as ODA, as it contributes to addressing a global challenge and not a disease disproportionately affecting people in developing countries. This situation may evolve.” The issue will be reviewed in November.

As a result, IDC stated that “for the time being, it would not be prudent for the Government to work on the basis that funding allocated to [this] ... would count as ODA.”

The U.K. government committed £313 million to COVID-19 tools at a global pledging conference in May, including £250 million to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, £40 million to the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, and £23 million to the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics.

The report also revealed disagreement among international donors over spending aid in this way. It cited a June meeting of the statistical working party of OECD DAC. During the meeting, “not all members agreed with the Secretariat’s interpretation of the rules in this instance,” according to the report. “In particular, two members disagreed with the assessment of the eligibility of research for a Covid-19 vaccine.”

“R&D for a coronavirus cure, for the benefit of all around the world, cannot get backdoor funding from our depleting aid budget.”

— Sarah Champion, chair, IDC

Despite the IDC report’s ambition to monitor the impact of the coronavirus in low-income countries, it found there was too little reliable data to establish the extent of the disease. But it suggested the secondary effects of the pandemic, such as the economic damage and increased levels of violence against women, were worse than its health impacts in many places.

A Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office spokesperson said: “The UK is leading the way to tackle coronavirus both at home and in vulnerable countries. We have provided up to £1.3 billion of UK aid to stop the spread of the outbreak, find and equitably distribute a vaccine and protect health systems and livelihoods around the world. We will use our G7 presidency next year to set out a new international approach to global health security.”

Update, Nov. 13: Figures on government spending originally cited by IDC were inaccurate. This article was amended to clarify that the government has spent £313 million of aid on R&D for COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments.

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.