‘Go big’: US doubles COVID vaccine purchases for global sharing

Biden announces US commitment to donate total of 1.1 billion vaccines at summit with world leaders.

Poorer countries in Asia and Africa have struggled to secure vaccines for their populations [File: Aaron Favila/AP Photo]

President Joe Biden has announced that the United States will double its purchases of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccines for low and middle-income countries, bringing its pledged donations to a total of 1.1 billion doses.

Speaking at a virtual international summit on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on Wednesday, Biden described the ramping up of US vaccine donations as a “historic commitment”.

“The United States is buying another half a billion doses of Pfizer to donate to low- and middle-income countries around the world,” he said.

The new doses will all be shipped by this time next year, he added.

Biden stressed the need for global cooperation to defeat COVID-19 and improve preparedness for future pandemics. He called on wealthier nations to donate, not sell, vaccine doses to lower-income countries, saying that the US is making the donations “with no political strings attached”.

“We’re not going to solve this crisis with half measures or middle-of-the-road ambitions,” Biden said. “We need to go big. And we need to do our part – governments, the private sector, civil society leaders, philanthropists.”

He also announced a partnership with the European Union to “work more closely” with the bloc on expanding global vaccination. Japan also announced it would double its COVID-19 vaccine donations to about 60 million doses, while Italy said it planned give other countries 45 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines before the end of the year, three times its original pledge.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping, in a speech to the UN on Tuesday, repeated that China aimed to provide two billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to the world by the end of the year.

Addressing the UNGA on Tuesday, Biden called for a “collective act of science and political will” to combat the pandemic.

“We need to act now to get shots in arms as fast as possible and expand access to oxygen, test, treatments to save lives around the world,” he said, adding the US had already shipped more than 160 million vaccine doses to 100 countries.

The appeal came as world leaders, aid groups and global health organisations are growing increasingly vocal about the slow pace of global vaccinations and the inequity of access to shots between people in wealthier and poorer nations.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) welcomed the latest pledge, but said more needed to be done to get the vaccines to where they needed to be.

“At MSF, we see each and every day that people all over the world remain in desperate need of COVID-19 vaccines, including health care workers and people who are the most vulnerable to becoming seriously ill if they contract the virus,” Dr Carrie Teicher, MSF-USA’s director of programmes said in a statement.

“Donations alone aren’t enough to end this pandemic. The vast majority of lofty donation pledges haven’t materialized so far; only 15 percent of the more than 1 billion doses pledged by wealthy governments have arrived in Africa. It’s unfathomable that millions more people are going to die waiting for vaccines just because of where they live.”

Scientific ‘triumph’, political ‘failure’

More than 5.9 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered globally during the past year, representing about 43 percent of the global population.

But there are vast disparities in distribution, with many lower-income nations struggling to vaccinate even the most vulnerable share of their populations, and some yet to exceed 2 to 3 percent vaccination rates.

Several leaders used their UNGA speeches to address the inequality.

“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 Ivan Duque told the UN on Tuesday.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera 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,” Pinera said.

World leaders have committed to vaccinating 70 percent of the global population by this time next year, but have not detailed how they plan to achieve that goal.

Lawrence Gostin, an expert in public health, told Al Jazeera that the key issue was a lack of global responsibility.

“This is a global pandemic and the truth is that the glaring inequities we have seen didn’t just happen by accident they were were a choice by Europe, the United States and other high income countries because we hoarded vaccines through pre-purchase agreements and created enormous scarcity,” said Gostin, the director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. “The rich have and the poor don’t. The rich live and the poor die. It’s as simple as that.”

The UN health agency has said it wants countries to fulfil their dose-sharing pledges “immediately” and make shots available for programmes that benefit poor countries and Africa, in particular.

COVAX, the UN-backed programme designed to ensure the fair distribution of vaccines has struggled with production issues, supply shortages and a near-cornering of the market for vaccines by the wealthy nations, missing almost all of its short-term distribution targets.

Amnesty International this week accused the six leading manufacturers of COVID-19 of “wheeling and dealing in favour of wealthy states” and failing to share their technology or ease intellectual property rights.

MSF urged the US to do more to address the inequity.

“To stop this reliance on pharmaceutical corporations that receive significant taxpayer funding but still get to decide what volume of vaccines they produce, what prices they set, and who they sell them to first – as well as donors that might not follow through with their commitments – it’s critical for the US to help other countries and regions become as self-sufficient as possible in addressing their own health needs,” Teicher said.

“The US must help dramatically scale up mRNA vaccine production globally by demanding that pharmaceutical corporations share the technology and know-how for mRNA vaccines so that many more manufacturers globally can produce these lifesaving vaccines.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies