June 4, 2021 7:45:53 am
Written by Sheryl Gay Stolberg
The White House, besieged with requests from other nations to share excess doses of coronavirus vaccine, on Thursday announced it will distribute an initial 25 million doses this month across a “wide range of countries” within Latin America and the Caribbean, South and Southeast Asia, and Africa, as well as the Palestinian territories, the war-ravaged Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
The doses represent an initial tranche of a total of 80 million that President Joe Biden has pledged to send overseas by the end of this month. Three-quarters of that first batch will be given to the international vaccine effort known as COVAX, officials said at a White House news conference on the pandemic. The rest will be reserved for “immediate needs and to help with surges around the world,” said Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, including in India and Iraq as well as the West Bank and Gaza.
Thursday’s announcement comes a week before Biden leaves for Cornwall, England, to meet with the heads of state of the Group of 7 industrialized nations, where the global vaccine supply is certain to be a topic of discussion. Officials said the Biden administration would continue to donate additional doses throughout the summer as they become available.
“This is just the beginning,” said Jeffrey Zients, Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator. “Expect a regular cadence of shipments around the world, across the next several weeks.”
While China and Russia have used vaccine donations as an instrument of diplomacy in an effort to extract favors from other nations, Biden has insisted the United States will not do that — a point that Sullivan emphasized Thursday.
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults have had at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine, and the rate of new cases and deaths has plummeted, contributing to an overall picture across the country that is “encouraging and uplifting,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the picture around the world, especially in poorer nations in Africa and Central and South America, where vaccination rates are much lower, is bleak. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay are all awash in new cases; in Colombia, nearly 500 people a day have died of the coronavirus over the last several weeks. A sudden, sharp rise in coronavirus cases in many parts of Africa could amount to a continental third wave, the World Health Organization warned on Thursday.
Some African nations have less than 1% of their populations partially vaccinated, according to data from the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford, and the percentages of vaccinated people in Honduras and Guatemala are around 3% of the population.
Sullivan said the administration has decided to give priority to countries he described as neighbors of the United States, including Guatemala and Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, while also working with existing regional networks like the African Union to allow local authorities to allocate the vaccines as they see fit.
Biden came into office vowing to restore the United States’ position as a leader in global health, and he has been under increasing pressure from activists, as well as some business leaders, to do more to address the global vaccine shortage. Earlier this year, he said he was reluctant to give away vaccine doses until the United States had enough for its own population, though he did promise in March to send a total of 4 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine to Mexico and Canada.
Those doses, it turned out, were made at a Baltimore facility owned by Emergent BioSolutions, where production has since been put on hold after an incident of contamination.
Biden’s pledge to donate 80 million doses involves vaccines made by four manufacturers. Besides AstraZeneca, they are Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, the last three of which have received U.S. emergency authorization for their vaccines. The president announced last month that his administration would send 20 million doses of the authorized vaccines overseas in June — the first time he had pledged to give away doses that could be used in the United States. Officials did not say Thursday why that number had been increased by 5 million.
Last month, Biden announced he would send 1 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine to South Korea; a plane carrying those doses was expected to take off Thursday evening, Zients said.
Biden has also pledged to donate up to 60 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, but those doses, also made at the Emergent plant, are not authorized for domestic use and cannot be released until regulators deem them safe. In March, his administration committed to providing financial support to help Biological E, a major vaccine manufacturer in India, produce at least 1 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines by the end of 2022.
The president has described the vaccine donations as part of an “entirely new effort” to increase vaccine supplies and vastly expand manufacturing capacity, most of it in the United States. To broaden supply further, Biden recently announced he would support waiving intellectual property protections for coronavirus vaccines. He also put Zients in charge of developing a global vaccine strategy.
But activists say simply donating excess doses and supporting the waiver is not enough. They argue that Biden must create the conditions for pharmaceutical companies to transfer their intellectual property to vaccine-makers overseas, so that other countries can stand up their own vaccine manufacturing operations.
Zients also said the United States is lifting the Defense Production Act’s “priority rating” for three vaccine-makers — AstraZeneca, Novovax and Sanofi. None of those vaccines are authorized for U.S. use, and the shift means that U.S.-based companies that supply the vaccine-makers will be able to “make their own decisions on which orders to fulfill first,” Zients said.
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