World leaders pledged more than $3 billion on Thursday for the global fight against the pandemic, as the United States marked a grim point in its own COVID-19 battle – and without the billions of dollars in emergency funding Biden has sought from Congress.
"Today, we mark a tragic milestone here in the United States: 1 million COVID deaths," Biden said in a prerecorded message Thursday morning to attendees of the second U.S.-led virtual COVID summit, co-hosted by Belize, Germany, Indonesia and Senegal.
The U.S. has recorded about 82 million COVID-19 cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Estimates of the total deaths vary, but as of Thursday, Johns Hopkins University data said about 999,000 deaths had been recorded.
New U.S. cases and hospitalizations have been rising in recent weeks, but the number of deaths has stayed relatively low, about 300 per day, down from more than 3,000 per day in February.
"Around the world, many more millions have died,” Biden said. “Millions of children have been orphaned, with thousands still dying every day. Now is the time for us to act. All of us together. We all must do more, must honor those we have lost by doing everything we can to prevent as many deaths as possible."
‘The short answer is money'
Together, the attendees – which included representatives from countries including Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Rwanda and South Korea, and also, philanthropic leaders such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates – committed billions of dollars and in-kind vaccine donations, technology assistance, commitments to vaccination drives and more.
The U.S. came to this gathering without a commitment from Congress for the $5 billion in global funding that Biden has asked for: a fact that Germany's leader seemed to highlight in his introductory comments.
"So what is needed?" Chancellor Olaf Scholz said. "The short answer is money."
Scholz pledged $885 million to global COVID efforts on Thursday. Other wealthy nations announced new commitments, with Italy pledging $208 million to the global Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator and South Korea pledging $300 million to that same initiative. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia pledged to give $2.8 million to the World Health Organization; tiny Lichtenstein provided $300,000 to the global COVAX vaccine distribution scheme. South Africa pledged to donate 5 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 10 million doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine to other African nations; Australia committed to share 60 million vaccine doses by the end of 2022.
Vice President Kamala Harris appealed to the U.S. Congress to approve the White House funding requests.
"We have called upon the United States Congress for $22.5 billion in additional emergency funding to battle COVID," she said. "Five billion dollars of that would be dedicated to continue our leadership and helping to save lives around the world. We will continue to advocate for these life-saving resources as part of our global commitment."
The remaining $17.5 billion would go toward domestic funding.
The White House says it's realistic about its main constraint.
"I think we don't want to sugarcoat it, that we need more money," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. "We don't have a Plan B here."
She urged Congress to approve the funding, "because we're going to exhaust our treatment supply, we'll lose out to other countries on promising new treatments, we'll lose our place in line for America to order new COVID vaccines, we'll be unable to maintain our supply of COVID tests, and our effort to get — help lower-income countries get COVID vaccines into arms will stall, which is especially relevant given the international summit we're hosting."
Health advocates: Money isn't everything
Health experts, including Dr. Krishna Udayakumar of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, welcomed the new commitments but told VOA via email that still more needs to be done.
"New funding commitments, over $3 billion, are important to fill immediate needs, but still doesn't reach the scale necessary for a comprehensive response, with a $15 billion gap just for the ACT Accelerator," he said. "We must have clarity on the most important priorities and targets, not a series of fragmented commitments. More vaccine donations, for example, add little value over the coming months.
“Now we need to focus on turning vaccines into vaccinations, ramping up test-and-treat capabilities in low- and middle-income countries, and shifting the global response to a sustainable control program with country-led leadership. There is clear support and momentum for the Financial Intermediary Fund, which could play a critical role for future pandemic preparedness and response with the proper funding and governance."
Advocates for health equity, like the ONE Campaign, said they want more action.
"This summit succeeded in securing desperately needed commitments and bringing new participants to the table. But world leaders have yet to deliver the strategy and volume of resources we need to get across the finish line,” said CEO Gayle Smith. "Leaders can still deliver a coordinated plan and the resources still required at the upcoming G-7 summit in June. Congress must get the ball rolling by urgently providing $5 billion for the ongoing global fight against COVID."
And the long answer is … long
A senior Biden administration official told reporters on the eve of the summit that the U.S. came to the summit with three priorities: first, to prevent complacency as new variants continue to emerge; second, to prevent deaths by focusing on the most vulnerable; and third, to lay the groundwork to prevent future pandemics.
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus delivered his organization's four requests to summit attendees: "First, we call for a policy commitment to boost vaccination, testing and treatment in countries," he said. "Second, we call for investment in local production. Third, we call for financial commitments to fully fund the ACT Accelerator and WHO strategic preparedness readiness and response plan. And fourth, we call for political commitment to support the financial intermediary fund and the new architecture for global health security."
Other countries stressed the importance of equity.
"We are advocating the establishment of a more inclusive new world order for public health, more inclusive for better handling of cross-border health issues," said Senegalese President Macky Sall, one of the co-hosts.
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo also urged global unity.
"We must work together to mitigate the pandemic and with a stronger global head architecture and preparedness," he said.
Absent from the summit, however, were two major vaccine developers – China and Russia.
Russia attended the previous summit, in September; China has yet to attend a summit. VOA asked a senior White House official why those two nations were not included.
"In terms of whether Russia was invited: no, we did not extend a commitment ask to them," he said. "And with other countries, we have extended and asked for a financial policy commitment."
He added, "We're finding amongst the countries, the companies, the philanthropies and the nonprofits that have committed to this effort that we've mobilized $3.1 billion of financing towards the global fight. So it's clear other countries are stepping up to do their part."
In the absence of additional congressional funding, Biden said that the U.S. is continuing to fight the pandemic by sharing U.S government-developed COVID-19 technologies with the World Health Organization's COVID-19 Technology Access Pool. And, he said, the U.S. will start a pilot program with the Global Fund to expand access to rapid testing and antiviral treatments.
Dr. Cameron Webb, an internal medicine doctor and senior policy adviser for equity on the White House COVID Response Team, noted that COVID may not be done with humanity. Research has found that many people infected with the virus continue to suffer symptoms long after they test negative. So, too, he said, the battle against the virus may continue for a long time.
"This was a mass disabling event," he told VOA via Zoom, speaking from his office between consultations with patients. "And you know, we talked about 1 million deaths, which, again, is tragic. And just multiply that many times over the number of people who are affected by COVID, in other ways with long-term sequelae. So it's something that we're watching closely, we're studying closely, both here in the United States and around the world."
"The key question for the summit is whether it will be a real inflection point to change the trajectory of the pandemic, or another modestly successful milestone that continues an under-resourced global response that is less effective than needed," he said. "We will need to track real actions after the summit, not just commitments, to know the answer."