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Biden Approves 500 Million More COVID Vaccine Doses for Developing Countries


U.S. President Joe Biden convenes a virtual COVID-19 Summit on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 22, 2021, in the South Court Auditorium of the White House in Washington.

Half a billion more doses of vaccine are headed from the U.S. to the rest of the world—or, as President Joe Biden put it Wednesday as he convened a summit to tackle the global pandemic: For every shot given to an American, Americans are giving three shots to the world.

"I'm keeping the promise that America will become the arsenal of vaccines, as we were the arsenal for democracy during World War II," Biden said Tuesday, as he met virtually in the White House with the leaders of South Africa, Indonesia, Canada, Britain and the European Union and World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

In a speech Tuesday at the United Nations, Biden touted the more than 160 million doses the U.S. had already distributed to more than 100 countries—more doses than all other nations combined. Wednesday's announcement increases to 1.1 billion the number of doses the U.S. has committed to purchase for other countries. The latest tranche of donations are of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine.

Biden also announced Wednesday an additional $370 million to get those shots in arms around the world, and $380 million to the Global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI), to further facilitate global vaccine distribution. The U.S. also is providing $1.4 billion to reduce COVID-19 deaths and mitigate transmission.

Also Wednesday, Vice President Kamala Harris announced a U.S. commitment of $250 million to a new global financing mechanism at the World Bank to prevent future pandemics, with $10 billion as the collective goal.

"This pandemic caught us off guard, and it should not have," she said. "We have learned the cost of failing to prepare. With every death, we have learned all too much the seriousness of that cost. And it is time, then, to act."

Biden embraced the WHO's goal of vaccinating at least 70% of the world's population within the next year and leveraged the announcement to encourage other wealthier countries to escalate efforts to contain the infection. Tedros, the WHO's director-general, said in June that reaching the goal would require 11 billion doses.

'Welcome and needed'

But global organizations and some world leaders have been increasingly critical of the distribution disparities and the slow pace of vaccinations, especially in the developing world. They have complained that the U.S. response has been inadequate, particularly as the nation pushes for booster shots for Americans before vulnerable people in poorer countries get their first dose.

FILE - Pfizer employees handle containers of vaccine doses at a Pfizer manufacturing plant producing the coronavirus vaccine, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Feb. 19, 2021.
FILE - Pfizer employees handle containers of vaccine doses at a Pfizer manufacturing plant producing the coronavirus vaccine, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Feb. 19, 2021.

"Any pledge of additional doses for the numerous countries that have been left devastatingly behind in terms of vaccine access during this pandemic is welcome and is needed," said Kate Elder, senior vaccines policy adviser for Doctors Without Borders' Access Campaign. "But we are not going to be able to donate our way out of this pandemic."

But, she added, "donations are done at the discretion of the donor. There's very little accountability for delivery. We've already seen hundreds of millions of doses pledged by wealthy governments similar to the United States, other countries in Europe with a pretty, pretty poor delivery rate so far. So, we need doses in arms right now. It's welcome. They're needed in these countries, but it's not going to solve the pandemic."

Booster shot debate

Dr. Anand Parekh, chief medical adviser for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank that seeks to bridge American political divisions, also said it's about how the vaccines are distributed, not just how many are sent out.

"How quickly does the world want to end this pandemic?" Parekh asked. "And if it truly is within the next year, then the president and others need to galvanize the entire world to ensure that we have the capacity and the equitable distribution plans to vaccinate the world."

Parekh defended the Biden administration's push for some vaccinated Americans to receive booster shots, a view that the WHO does not share. When speaking to reporters last month, Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO's emergencies program, likened the booster shot idea to "hand(ing) out extra life jackets to people who already have life jackets while we're leaving other people to drown without a single life jacket."

"Both of these objectives are critical," Parekh said. "They can't be pitted against one another. But of course that is predicated on having a robust manufacturing capacity of vaccines."

US Donates an Additional 500 Million Doses of Pfizer Vaccine
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One way to quickly boost capacity is to force vaccine producers to waive intellectual property rights on vaccine technology through the so-called TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) waiver at the World Trade Organization. The Biden administration said in May that it supported the waiver, and 100 other countries had also voiced their support. But without the backing of all members, the proposal is languishing at the WTO.

"We always knew that it would be a lengthy process," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in response to a question from VOA. "But that's never been the only basket that we're focused on. We've also been focused on increasing supply—or vaccine supply—to the world. We provide more vaccines to the world than any other country in the world combined. We've also been working with countries on manufacturing capacity and making sure they have the materials they need."

On Thursday, Biden will meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the world's largest vaccine manufacturing nation. Biden also will host Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in the first in-person meeting of the "Quadrilateral Security Dialogue," a strategic interchange that includes Australia and is seen as a bulwark against growing Chinese influence.

That group, Biden said Wednesday, is on its way to meeting its goal of producing at least 1 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2022.

Patsy Widakuswara and Wayne Lee contributed to this report.