With over 404,000 Americans alone dead from Covid-19 and the global death toll topping two million, the U.S. advocacy group Public Citizen on Wednesday warned President Joe Biden that joining a global vaccine initiative shunned by his predecessor is "not enough" to ensure equitable access to coronavirus vaccination.
"President Biden should use his power under existing law to accelerate global vaccine manufacturing—including by sharing the vaccine recipe with qualified manufacturers around the world."
—Peter Maybarduk, Public Citizen
During a Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Secretary of State-designate Tony Blinken confirmed that under Biden, the United States will join COVAX, a vaccination effort led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and the World Health Organization (WHO).
"By joining the World Health Organization's COVAX initiative, Biden is helping the U.S. rejoin the community of nations, at last," said Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen's Access to Medicines program. "There is much more to be done in order to restore U.S. global leadership on the pandemic, however."
As Maybarduk explained: "There is not nearly enough vaccine to meet global need. The result will be that, even as rich countries finally vaccinate their populations, the pandemic will continue to rage in developing countries—for years."
"President Biden should use his power under existing law to accelerate global vaccine manufacturing—including by sharing the vaccine recipe with qualified manufacturers around the world," he said. "If the United States leads the way to expand production, we can overcome scarcity, rationing, and preventable death, suffering, and misery."
Although more than 51.9 million shots have been given on a global scale, including 16.3 million in the United States, according to Bloomberg News, the bulk of those doses have been administered in wealthy countries that have agreements with the Big Pharma companies that—bolstered by huge amounts of public funding and support—have developed various effective vaccines.
In December, Dr. Mohga Kamal Yanni of the People's Vaccine Alliance warned that "the current system, where pharmaceutical corporations use government funding for research, retain exclusive rights, and keep their technology secret to boost profits, could cost many lives."
The alliance—which includes Amnesty International, Frontline AIDS, Global Justice Now, and Oxfam—estimates that nearly 70 poor countries will only be able to vaccinate one in 10 people this year "unless urgent action is taken by governments and the pharmaceutical industry to make sure enough doses are produced."
"Our best chance of staying safe from #COVID19 is to have vaccines, diagnostics and treatments that are available for ALL.
— UNAIDS (@UNAIDS) January 19, 2021
Biden on Wednesday ceased U.S. withdrawal from WHO, which interim executive director of Amnesty International USA Bob Goodfellow welcomed as a "much-needed first step in restoring the United States' cooperation with the international community and signaling its commitment to prioritizing international public health."
"As the world continues to roll out Covid-19 vaccines, a united, coordinated global response to this pandemic is more needed than ever," Goodfellow said. "The Biden administration must immediately move to support global initiatives that aim to ensure fair vaccine access for all countries, such as the WHO's COVAX pillar. It is of the utmost importance that the Biden administration lead multilateral efforts to fight the pandemic and to support and fund global vaccine efforts."
"Most importantly," he added, "the Biden administration must lead international efforts to prioritize vaccine distribution for those most at risk, regardless of the country they live in. We urge the administration to implement a human rights-centered approach to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Blinken told lawmakers on Tuesday that "we believe strongly that we can ensure that every American gets the vaccine, but also help make sure that others around the world who want it have access to it."
That pledge will be tested as Biden not only takes control of the bungled U.S. vaccination effort but also pursues a new strategy in terms of global efforts to battle the pandemic.
More than 39 million doses of vaccine have now been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries. Just 25 doses have been given in one lowest-income country. Not 25 million; not 25,000; just 25.
I need to be blunt: the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure—and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world's poorest countries.
"Even as they speak the language of equitable access, some countries and companies continue to prioritize bilateral deals, going around COVAX, driving up prices, and attempting to jump to the front of the queue," he added. "This is wrong."
This post has been updated with comment from Bob Goodfellow of Amnesty International USA and to reflect that, as of Wednesday, over 404,000 Americans had died from Covid-19.