The Biden administration, under intense pressure to donate excess coronavirus vaccines to needy nations, is moving to address the global shortage in another way: by partnering with Japan, India and Australia to finance a dramatic expansion of the vaccine manufacturing capacity.
The agreement was announced Friday at the Quad Summit, a virtual meeting between the heads of state of those four countries, which President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris attended Friday morning. The goal, senior administration officials said, is to address an acute vaccine shortage in Southeast Asia, which in turn will boost worldwide supply
The United States has fallen far behind China, Russia and India in the race to marshal coronavirus vaccines as an instrument of diplomacy. At the same time, Biden is facing accusations of “vaccine hoarding” from global health advocates who want his administration to channel supplies to needy nations that are desperate for access.
Insisting that Americans come first, the president has so far refused to make any concrete commitments to give away U.S.-made vaccines.
“If we have a surplus, we’re going to share it with the rest of the world,” he said earlier this week. “We’re going to start off making sure Americans are taken care of first, but we’re then going to try and help the rest of the world.”
The One Campaign, a nonprofit founded by U2 singer Bono, said the U.S. has purchased 453 million excess vaccine doses that could be sent to foreign nations. It has called on the Biden administration to share 5% of doses abroad once 20% of Americans have been vaccinated and to gradually increase the percentage of shared doses as more Americans are vaccinated.
“It’s time for U.S. leaders to ask themselves: When this pandemic is over, do we want the world to remember America’s leadership to help distribute lifesaving vaccines, or will we leave that to others?” Tom Hart, The One Campaign’s North America executive director, said in a statement.
China and India are already giving away vaccine shots to curry favor with neighbors, and more than 50 countries from Latin America to Asia have ordered 1.2 billion doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. But Biden would face a political uproar if he sent doses abroad while they are still scarce in the United States.
Biden is taking steps to ramp up vaccine production so that there will be as many as 1 billion doses available by the end of this year — far more than are necessary to vaccinate the roughly 260 million American adults.
A deal the administration brokered to have pharmaceutical giant Merck manufacture Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine, which Biden celebrated at the White House on Wednesday, will help advance that goal. Also Wednesday, Biden directed federal health officials to secure an additional 100 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine.
The administration has said those efforts are aimed at having enough vaccine for children, booster doses and unforeseen events, like infectious new variants. But Jeffrey Zients, Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, told reporters Friday that the deal between Johnson & Johnson and Merck would also “help expand capacity and ultimately benefits the world.”
At the same time, tens of millions of doses of the coronavirus vaccine made by British-Swedish company AstraZeneca are sitting idly in American manufacturing facilities, awaiting results from its U.S. clinical trial while countries that have authorized its use beg for access.
The fate of those doses is the subject of an intense debate among White House and federal health officials, with some arguing the administration should let them go abroad where they are desperately needed, while others are not ready to relinquish them, according to the senior administration officials.
The financing agreement the administration will unveil at Friday’s Quad Summit is aimed at creating capacity to make and deliver as many as an additional 1 billion doses in 2022 to support global demand, the officials said.
The administration has recently been in talks with international partners, including those backing a World Health Organization vaccine program known as Covax, about various ways to boost global vaccine supply, including by paying for companies to manufacture more doses that can then be released overseas, according to one participant in those discussions, who insisted on anonymity to describe private conversations.
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