The Biden administration is in danger of cutting short its efforts to help vaccinate the world because U.S. lawmakers had slashed global pandemic response funds from the omnibus spending bill that President Joe Biden signed into law earlier this week.
The $1.5 trillion spending bill did not include $15.6 billion requested for COVID-19 response, of which $5 billion had been marked by the White House to fight the coronavirus around the world.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told VOA during a briefing Friday that the administration did not have an alternative plan for delivering the 700 million doses of vaccines remaining from the 1.2 billion doses it had pledged.
"We need additional funding to continue to be the arsenal of vaccines," she said. "There is not a secret fund that we have not told you about to continue to provide the type of free programs we have in the United States or to provide the level of international assistance that we would like to continue to provide."
A White House official confirmed that the 1.2 billion doses of vaccines had been purchased. The lack of funding, however, will devastate America's ability to ensure recipient countries can effectively deploy them, and to provide tests, therapeutics, oxygen and humanitarian aid to countries still struggling to manage the pandemic.
The pandemic response fund was stripped following Republican lawmakers' refusal to add new coronavirus spending unless it was offset by spending cuts elsewhere.
In early March, 36 Republican senators sent a letter to Biden saying that before they would consider additional COVID-19 requests, they wanted an accounting of how the federal government had allocated taxpayer funds to combat the pandemic. "Congress must receive a full accounting of how the government has already spent the first $6 trillion," the letter said.
House Democrats have introduced a standalone COVID-19 relief bill, but it does not yet have the votes to pass both chambers of Congress.
Strategy pivot curtailed
Just last month, the administration said it would adjust its global pandemic response strategy, pivoting away from boosting vaccine supply and toward increasing delivery capacity. But now it can no longer finance Global Vax, its international initiative launched in December.
"Without additional funding to support getting shots into arms, USAID will have to curtail our growing efforts to turn vaccines into vaccinations — just as countries are finally gaining access to the vaccine supplies needed to protect their citizens," said Samantha Power, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in a statement.
Humanitarian organizations criticized the removal of COVID-19 funding from the omnibus bill.
The U.S. will not be able to "keep up the fight against COVID at home and around the world — a serious concern given the rising surges in Asia and Europe," said Tom Hart, president of the ONE Campaign, in a statement to VOA.
Hart said that if large parts of the world remain vulnerable to the virus and its variants, Americans' own health and economic recovery are at risk. "What should be a no-brainer after two years of a pandemic has proven impossible for world leaders and lawmakers to grasp: We will not end the pandemic anywhere until we end it everywhere. Congress can and must fix this," Hart said.
Only 14.1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, according to Our World in Data.
While the U.S. remains the biggest vaccine donor by far, public health officials called the lack of global pandemic response funding "self-defeating."
"American leadership for a robust and effective global response is the best pathway to end the pandemic, build resilient health systems, and be better prepared for future health security threats," said Dr. Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.
"We can't fully protect the health and economic prosperity of Americans without doing more around the world," Udayakumar told VOA.
The cut to pandemic response funding came as lawmakers agreed to $13.6 billion in assistance for Ukraine, including $6.5 billion to supply Kyiv with weapons as it battles Russia's invasion and $6.7 billion for economic and humanitarian aid for the country.