JOHANNESBURG - The United States announced this week that it will share an additional 20 million coronavirus vaccine doses with other countries, in addition to the 60 million it has already committed. The unanswered question: where will the vaccines go?
U.S. State Department Coordinator for Global COVID Response Gayle Smith sidestepped that issue Wednesday during a rapid-fire teleconference, despite repeated, urgent inquires from journalists in the Caribbean, India, Brazil, Africa, East Asia, and the European Union.
However, Smith emphasized the U.S. is working closely with the global COVAX facility to determine where the vaccines are needed most, and how they can be most equitably distributed.
“We have not made the decisions on allocations yet,” she said, repeatedly. “We'll have that information for you sometime in the near term. What we are doing is looking at every region in the world and we are well aware of the extremely low vaccine coverage on the African continent.”
Health experts at the United Nations estimate that of the 1.4 billion doses administered worldwide, only 24 million have reached Africa — less than 2%.
The other point Smith emphasized: Despite the fact that the U.S.’s top adversaries, China and Russia, are ramping up their own vaccine donations around the world, this move by the U.S. is not a case of “vaccine diplomacy.” Smith stressed repeatedly that the U.S. will distribute according to need, and not to curry favor.
“Our view, with respect to vaccine diplomacy — and I think a really important point here — is that vaccines are tools for public health,” she said. “They are the means for bringing this pandemic to an end. We do not see them, do not intend to use them as a means for influence or pressure. And our decisions will be made on the basis of need, public health data and again, collaboration with key partners, absolutely including COVAX.”
However, Smith did note that the U.S. is the biggest donor of vaccines to the COVAX facility, and urged other wealthy nations to step up. She also noted that this vaccine donation will be accompanied by investments in vaccine manufacturing sites around the world, and U.S. assistance to improve other countries’ access to therapeutics and testing.
In making the donation announcement earlier this week, President Joe Biden explained his rationale for sending these vaccines, which were funded in large part by U.S. taxpayers, across the planet.
“There's a lot of talk about Russia and China influencing the world with vaccines,” he said. “We want to lead the world with our values, with this illustration of our innovation and ingenuity, and the fundamental decency of American people. Just as in World War II, America was the arsenal of democracy, in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic our nation is going to be the arsenal of vaccines for the rest of the world.”