Apr 26, 2021 - World

Biden's move to share vaccine doses could be a global game changer

Data: Airfinity; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: Airfinity; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The Biden administration took its biggest step yet toward becoming a global supplier of coronavirus vaccines, announcing that it would export 60 million AstraZeneca doses over the next several weeks.

Why it matters: President Biden has been under intense global scrutiny for his "Americans first" approach. Alone among the four major producers, the U.S. has kept nearly its entire supply up to now.

  • The biggest symbol of Washington's "vaccine nationalism" had been the stockpiling of the AstraZeneca vaccine — not approved and not needed in the U.S., but crucial to many countries' rollouts.
  • A senior administration official told reporters tonight that just 10 million doses were waiting to be distributed (much lower than had been reported), while another 50 million doses would be ready by June.

Those doses will be exported around the world, pending an FDA safety review, but the White House says no decisions have been made as to which countries will receive them.

  • India could be near the top of the list given the terrifying outbreak there, though the White House says Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not request doses in a call with Biden today.
  • So too could Mexico, which has turned to Russia and China in search of vaccines despite bordering one of the world's largest producers.
COVID-19 vaccinations by country
Note: This map represents the total number of vaccines administered, not people vaccinated; Data: Our World in Data; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Breaking it down: While relatively small compared to the 231 million doses the U.S. has already administered, 60 million doses would be a major boost to the severely strained global supply.

  • The COVAX initiative, the primary source of vaccines for dozens of lower-income countries, has thus far only distributed 45 million doses globally.
  • Still, now that Biden has shown he's willing to export the vaccine the U.S. isn't using, the obvious next question is when he'll allow exports of the ones it is: Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

What to watch: Nearly every U.S. adult who wants a vaccine will likely have had one within the next two to three weeks, Axios' Caitlin Owens reports.

  • And as demand begins to wane, supply should continue to ramp up. Pfizer, Moderna, J&J and AstraZeneca still owe the U.S. hundreds of millions of doses (more still if Biden exercises additional purchase options).
  • Biden will face international pressure and public health imperatives to share those doses with the world. He has said that he hopes to do so once the U.S. has a "surplus" but offered no clarity as to what qualifies as a surplus or where the doses will go.
  • On the one hand: The Biden administration has emphasized the need for caution and flexibility at home, citing possible production disruptions, the likely need for booster shots and the possibility of vaccinating children.
  • On the other: Secretary of State Tony Blinken has said the U.S. will become "the world leader in helping to make sure that the entire world gets vaccinated."

The bottom line: Even as the U.S. puts billions of dollars toward that goal, it has been unwilling to tap the biggest asset at Biden's disposal: the doses streaming out of U.S. factories each week.

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