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Joe Biden has announced that the US will donate an additional 500m Covid-19 vaccines to low- and middle-income countries around the world, bringing America’s total global donation to more than 1.1bn doses.
The US president outlined the plan on Wednesday at a virtual coronavirus summit where he urged world leaders to “go big” in tackling the pandemic and closing the vaccination gap with poorer nations.
The meeting on the margins of the UN general assembly offers Biden a chance to exercise soft power and gain an edge on rivals such as China in “vaccine diplomacy”.
In June Biden announced that the US would buy and donate half a billion Pfizer vaccines to 92 low- and lower-middle-income countries and the African Union through Covax, the global vaccine initiative. These have begun to ship, though the logistical challenges of distribution and storage are considerable.
On Wednesday Biden promised more and urged other countries to step up. “The United States is buying another half-billion doses of Pfizer to donate to low and middle income countries around the world,” he said. “This is another half-billion doses that will all be shipped by this time next year.
“And it brings our total commitment of donated vaccines to over 1.1bn vaccines. Put another way, for every one shot we’ve administered to date in America we have now committed to do three shots to the rest of the world.”
Biden reiterated his pledge that “America will become the arsenal of vaccines, as we were the arsenal for democracy during World War II”.
But he added pointedly: “We need other high-income countries to deliver on their own ambitious vaccine donations and pledges.”
He announced a new EU-US partnership to work more closely together on expanding global vaccinations. He said the participants should commit to “donating, not selling” vaccines to low-income countries “with no political strings attached”.
Virtual attendees included the UN secretary general, António Guterres, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, and the WTO director general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
Biden told them the summit was about “supercharging” efforts to dramatically increase vaccine production and deal with logistical challenges, addressing the “oxygen crisis” in many hospitals around the world, improving access to testing and personal protective equipment, and making the global health security infrastructure more resilient.
The US alone has lost more than 670,000 people to the coronavirus, he noted, and the worldwide death toll is above 4.5m. “We’re not going to solve this crisis with half-measures or middle of the road ambitions. We need to go big and we need to do our part – governments, the private sector, civil society leaders, philanthropists. This is an all-hands-on-deck crisis.”
Biden was hosting the virtual summit amid scrutiny over why he is promoting a third vaccine dose for US citizens at a moment when less than 2% of people in developing countries have had their first shot.
Ahead of the meeting, a group of Democratic senators including Tina Smith, Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren wrote to Biden urging him to make firm commitments to expand global Covid-19 vaccine access and lead the world out of the pandemic.
“According to experts, 11bn Covid-19 vaccine doses are needed to vaccinate 70% of the global population and significantly reduce the spread of the virus,” the senators, joined by two representatives, wrote in the letter. “So far, 5.82bn doses have been administered globally, but less than 2% of the population living in low-income countries received even one dose.
“Clearly, there is an inequitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccine doses, and it is getting worse. Despite promises and pledges from some wealthy countries to donate nearly 1bn doses to the global effort, only 15% of those donations have actually been distributed.”
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) urged the US and other high income countries to immediately redistribute their excess vaccine doses to low- and middle-income countries via the Covax facility and regional procurement mechanisms.
MSF also said the US government must demand that Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna share Covid-19 mRNA vaccine technology and knowhow so other manufacturers can make additional mRNA vaccines and meet the global needs.
Dr Maria Guevara, MSF international medical secretary, said: “The longer the world is divided into Covid-19 haves and have-nots, the longer the pandemic will drag on, the more variants can develop, and the more deaths and suffering will occur.”
The summit underscores Biden’s attempt to put the US back in a global leadership role after the “America first” nationalism of the Donald Trump era. China announced this week that it has delivered 1.1bn vaccine doses to more than a hundred countries, although experts have questioned the effectiveness of these vaccines.
Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA Network and a UN finance expert, who is attending the summit, said in an interview: “It’s amazing that the Biden administration is filling a leadership void but we cannot move quickly enough from our perspective for two reasons. There’s the moral case that developing countries are experiencing a fourth wave of the pandemic and people are dying in the streets. We have to save lives.
“But there’s also something that is equally important: if we are not focused on getting shots in arms in the developing world, more variants are going to come to the United States and we will face a continuing health crisis. Perhaps even more significantly, we’ll continue to experience severe economic shocks all over the world in the years to come.”