WASHINGTON – President Biden, following widespread calls for a stepped-up response to the rise in the pandemic overseas, said Monday that his government would send 20 million doses of a federally approved coronavirus vaccine overseas in June – the first time that he has committed to giving away these cans could be used in the United States.
The donation is another step in what Mr. Biden has promised to be an “entirely new effort” to increase vaccine supply and significantly expand manufacturing capacity, most of it in the US. He also hired Jeffrey Zients, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, to develop a global strategy.
“We know America will never be completely safe until the raging global pandemic is under control,” Biden said in a brief appearance at the White House. “No ocean is wide enough, no wall is high enough to protect us.”
The epicenter of the crisis has shifted to India and other countries as new cases and deaths fall with increasing US vaccination rates. A growing and non-partisan chorus of diplomats, health professionals and business leaders has urged the president to do more to end what AIDS activist Asia Russell calls “vaccine apartheid”.
Mr Biden said Monday that 20 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines – all approved for home use – would be shipped overseas. This is on top of AstraZeneca’s 60 million doses of the vaccine he pledged last month, though those doses are not approved for household use and cannot be released until regulators deem them safe.
“He has crossed the direct donation threshold,” said J. Stephen Morrison, a global health expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who joined three other health institutes on Monday to release a plan to increase vaccine supplies. “This is an important change.”
International health activists want far more.
“Donating 80 million doses of vaccines without increasing production globally is like putting a band-aid on a machete wound,” said Gregg Gonsalves, a longtime AIDS activist.
Those 80 million doses were five times the number any other country had donated, Biden said, noting that taking the lead in the world’s fight against coronavirus was an opportunity to rebuild American authority. And unlike Russia and China, who have tried to use their vaccines as an instrument of diplomacy, the United States will not expect favors in return, the president said.
“We want to lead the world with our values, with this demonstration of our innovation and ingenuity and the basic decency of the American people,” said Biden. “Just like in World War II, America was the arsenal of democracy. In the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, our nation will be the arsenal of vaccines for the rest of the world.”
Mr Biden’s announcement came not long after a World Health Organization press conference at which Director General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said countries with high vaccination rates would have to do more to help countries hard hit by the coronavirus or the whole world would be at risk.
May 17, 2021, 6:24 p.m. ET
“There is a tremendous hiatus growing in which some countries with the highest vaccination rates appear to have the pandemic over, while others are experiencing large waves of infections,” said Dr. Tedros.
Variants such as B.1.617, which was first discovered in India and recently classified as a variant of concern by the WHO, contribute to the spread of infections and worry many researchers.
Dr. Tedros urged well-served nations to send more vaccine allocations to hardest hit countries and vaccine developers and manufacturers expedite the delivery of hundreds of millions of doses to Covax, an international initiative dedicated to the equitable distribution of the vaccine, citing a call from Henrietta Fore, Managing Director of UNICEF.
Mr Biden took office pledging to restore the United States as a leader in global public health, and he has taken certain steps to do so: re-joining the World Health Organization, pledging $ 4 billion in international vaccination efforts, and financial Support for Biological E, a vaccine maker in India, will produce at least one billion doses of coronavirus vaccines by the end of 2022.
To further expand the offering, Mr. Biden recently announced that he would support the waiver of intellectual property protection for coronavirus vaccines. However, activists say it is not enough just to support the waiver. Mr Biden needs to create the conditions under which pharmaceutical companies can transfer their intellectual property to overseas vaccine manufacturers, they argue. They see his endeavors bit by bit.
“We are in administration after 100 days and what Biden should deliver is a global battle plan against vaccine apartheid and today’s announcement has lines on a post-it note,” said Ms. Russell, adding, “It must be a global US strategy based on technology transfer and forcing pharmaceuticals to come to the table to share the recipe. “
The pharmaceutical industry refuses to renounce the agreement known as TRIPS on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights. Vaccine makers claim a solution already exists as they aggressively expand production lines and sign contracts with colleagues around the world to receive billions of additional doses.
In an open letter to the president released last week by a non-partisan group of business leaders, diplomats and a former defense minister, it was argued that such a waiver “could do little and cause harm”.
While global health activists strongly support the waiver, some have welcomed the views of the business community. They see clear parallels with their work in the fight against the global AIDS epidemic.
“It shows an unprecedented willingness by Pharma and its private sector allies to admit what we have all been saying for months – the private sector alone cannot and will not ensure global access to vaccines,” said James Krellenstein, founder of PrEP4All, a nonprofit to ensure universal access to HIV prevention and treatment, wrote in an email on Sunday. “It really puts the burden on the Biden administration,” he added.
Open letter organizer Hank Greenberg, chairman of Starr Companies and former chairman of American International Group, the insurance giant, said in an interview Monday that Mr Biden’s announcement didn’t go far enough.
Mr Greenberg, 96, a World War II veteran, said he was inspired to write after a former chief executive of an AIG subsidiary who later became ambassador from the Philippines to the United States told him he could not get vaccinated. Like Mr. Biden, he used language that evoked the war effort.
“If we don’t,” he asked, “who will do it?”
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