Sep 20, 2021 - World

Biden to push vaccine-sharing at UN, but boosters at home

COVID-19 vaccination rate
Data: Our World in Data; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

President Biden will convene world leaders on Wednesday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to push them to do more to end the pandemic — though he's also facing criticism for prioritizing boosters at home.

Why it matters: There is still no functional plan in place to vaccinate the world, and past summits of this sort have flopped. The White House hopes that this virtual gathering will produce ambitious promises, accountability measures to track progress, and ultimately help achieve a 70% global vaccination rate this time next year.

  • The U.S. is reportedly seeking to buy another 500 million Pfizer doses for donation ahead of the summit, which would bring the total doses pledged by the U.S. to over 1 billion.

Invitations to the summit included requests that countries make specific pledges of their own.

  • India was a particular focus. As Axios reported, the Biden administration quietly pressured India to restart vaccine exports in part by promising a high-profile role for Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the summit.
  • The backstory: India was set to be a primary vaccine supplier for lower-income countries before suspending most vaccine exports in March during a second wave at home.
  • India’s health minister announced today that exports would resume next month.

State of play: The 140 million doses the U.S. has donated to date are a drop in the global bucket, but still more than other rich countries have managed.

  • The EU promised another 200 million doses last week, to bring the total to 450 million, but it's distributed just 18 million so far.
  • G7 countries have together donated just one-eighth of the doses they promised at a summit in June and are set to waste a combined 100 million doses this year, according to Max Hadler of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).

The timing is also a bit awkward. Biden is about to launch a campaign to provide a third dose to millions of Americans, over the objections of the World Health Organization, at a time when just 6% of people in Africa have had a single shot.

  • “When people say we can do both, unfortunately, that’s not true because at the moment we are in a zero-sum game. Vaccines used in one place will have to be necessarily taken away from some other place,” Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’s chief scientist, said on a conference call today organized by PHR.
  • Swaminathan noted that in most cases, boosters aren’t necessary to prevent serious disease. “This is actually the time to prevent deaths,” she said.
  • “There's a myth that there's a glut of vaccines coming in 2022,” added former CDC director Tom Frieden. At the current pace, he argues, some countries won’t have enough doses until 2023 or beyond.

Experts on the call contended that while pledges to donate doses and supplies are helpful, more drastic action is needed to vaccinate the world, particularly if rich countries continue to prioritize boosters.

  • “Fundamentally, we’re allowing two companies [Pfizer and Moderna] to hold the world hostage as they prioritize selling high-cost vaccines to rich countries and do little or nothing to scale up to close the global gap,” Frieden said, making the case for temporarily waiving intellectual property rights to open up additional manufacturing.
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