US President Joe Biden is set to push well-off nations to do more to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control around the world, as world leaders, aid groups and global health organizations sound the alarm about the slow pace of global vaccinations.
Biden is convening a virtual vaccine summit on Wednesday, timed to coincide with this week’s U.N. General Assembly, to prod more nations to follow the lead of the U.S., which has donated more doses than any other. According to a person familiar with the matter, Biden was set to announce a significant new purchase of vaccines to share with the world, and to set targets for other nations to hit. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview Biden’s remarks.
But even the American response has come under criticism for being too modest, particularly as the Biden administration advocates for providing booster shots to tens of millions of Americans before vulnerable people in poorer nations have received even a first dose.
“We have observed failures of multilateralism to respond in an equitable, coordinated way to the most acute moments. The existing gaps between nations with regard to the vaccination process are unheard of,” Colombian President Iván Duque said.
In his own remarks at the U.N., Biden took credit on Tuesday for sharing more than 160 million COVID-19 vaccine doses with other countries, including 130 million surplus doses and the first installments of more than 500 million shots the U.S. is purchasing for the rest of the world.
“Planes carrying vaccines from the United States have already landed in 100 countries, bringing people all over the world a little dose of hope, as one American nurse termed it to me,” Biden said. “A dose of hope direct from the American people — and importantly, no strings attached.”
Biden planned to announce additional American commitments on Wednesday and was set to call on the rest of the world to “commit to of a higher level of ambition” as well.
But world leaders made clear in advance it was not enough. Chilean President Sebastian Piñera said the “triumph” of speedy vaccine development was offset by political “failure” that produced inequitable distribution. “In science, cooperation prevailed; in politics, individualism. In science, shared information reigned; in politics, reserve. In science, teamwork predominated; in politics, isolated effort,” Piñera said.
The World Health Organization has long decried vaccine inequity between rich and poor countries. It says only 15% of promised donations of vaccines — from rich countries that have access to large quantities of them — have been delivered. In a statement last week looking ahead to the General Assembly, the U.N. health agency said it wants countries to fulfill their dose-sharing pledges “immediately” and make shots available for vaccine deployment programs that benefit poor countries and Africa in particular.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted Monday that his agency wants the U.N. meeting to help ensure vaccine equity and equal access to COVID-19 tools, improved preparedness for pandemics, and renewed efforts to achieve U.N. goals more broadly.
“We want to see greater action on access to the doses for the countries that really need them,” said Dr. Margaret Harris, a WHO spokeswoman, at a U.N. briefing in Geneva on Tuesday.
COVAX, the U.N.-backed program to ship vaccines to all countries, whether rich or poor, has been struggling with production hiccups, supply shortages, and a near-cornering of the market for vaccines by wealthy nations that have struck — and continue to strike — bilateral deals to buy doses from big pharmaceutical manufacturers.
WHO has repeatedly called for “solidarity,” urged Big Pharma companies that make vaccines to prioritize COVAX and make public their supply schedules, and appealed to wealthy countries to avoid broad rollouts of booster shots so that doses can be made available to healthcare workers and vulnerable people in the developing world. Such calls have largely gone ignored.
COVAX has missed nearly all of its vaccine-sharing targets. Its managers also have repeatedly downsized their ambitions to ship vaccines by the end of this year — from an original target of some 2 billion doses worldwide to hopes for 1.4 billion now — and even that mark could be missed.
At a news conference last week, Dr. Seth Berkley, the CEO of Gavi, a private-public partnership that runs COVAX, called the program “the largest and most complex vaccine rollout in history” and acknowledged: “I think we all know that the global response has not been good enough.”
As of Tuesday, COVAX had shipped more than 296 million doses to 141 countries, with its busiest days ahead.
“I think we’ve demonstrated that COVAX can work in scale, but it’s really time for the world to get behind it,” Berkley said.
“The longer the world is divided into COVID-19 haves and have-nots, the longer the pandemic will drag on, the more variants can develop, and the more deaths and suffering will occur,” said Dr. Maria Guevara of Doctors Without Borders.
“A year and a half into the pandemic, we are barely closer to securing the global response plan,” said Tom Hart, acting CEO of the ONE Campaign. “G-7 countries have shown limited political will to address vaccine inequities, despite having it in their power to do so. The White House summit is a welcome sign of the kind of leadership we need and offers world leaders an opportunity to step up and deliver.”