Aug 26, 2021
President Joe Biden vowed to make the U.S. the world's vaccine "arsenal," but of the more than $16 billion that Congress appropriated to strengthen the response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the Biden administration has spent less than 0.01% of it to expand global vaccine manufacturing, even as experts emphasize that doing so is necessary to defeat the coronavirus.
"Unequal access to vaccines threatens lives everywhere. So long as Covid-19 spreads worldwide, even worse variants than Delta will emerge."
--James Krellenstein, PrEP4All
That's according to Playing Fiddle While the World Burns, a new report released Thursday by PrEP4All, a global health justice organization dedicated to increasing access to lifesaving HIV and Covid-19 medications.
While the relief package signed by the president in March allocated $16.05 billion to boost the production of coronavirus tests, vaccines, treatments, and other tools to end the public health emergency, PrEP4All found that the Biden administration has so far spent just $145 million--only $12 million of it from the American Rescue Plan--to ramp up vaccine manufacturing.
Most of that money was used to retrofit production lines at Merck, the pharmacuetical company working with Johnson & Johnson to produce Covid-19 vaccines. If Biden spent the remaining billions of dollars earmarked for pandemic counter-measures--funding that PrEP4All says is "more than sufficient to build mRNA vaccine production capacity in six months"--the U.S. could make 16 billion doses and "vaccinate the entire world in a single year."
"If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it's that viruses know no borders, and any successful public health response requires a global solution," James Krellenstein, PrEP4All co-founder and managing director, said in a statement. "Unequal access to vaccines threatens lives everywhere. So long as Covid-19 spreads worldwide, even worse variants than Delta will emerge."
"It is imperative that the Biden administration immediately scale up vaccine production for the billions of people who don't have access," Krellenstein continued. "The health of our nation and the world depends on it."
Medicare for All advocate Ady Barkan, who last July elicited a promise from Biden to share Covid-19 vaccine technology and not let intellectual property restrictions obstruct the mass production of doses, described the Biden administration's refusal to develop and implement a comprehensive plan to ramp up global vaccine manufacturing as "probably the most important issue in the world right now."
Just over 1% of adults in impoverished nations have been at least partially vaccinated against the coronavirus. Even as billions in the Global South wait to receive their first dose, the Biden administration is planning to administer booster shots in the U.S. as soon as next month, which epidemiologists and activists fear could further entrench "vaccine apartheid."
A recent poll commissioned by Public Citizen, which for months has been calling on Biden to establish vaccine manufacturing hubs around the world to produce billions of Covid-19 vaccine doses in approximately a year, found that nearly 70% of likely U.S. voters want the federal government to invest in ramping up global production.
Those voters join hundreds of campaigners and scientists, including former U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden, who are demanding that the Biden administration rapidly expand the production of mRNA vaccines and distribute doses to Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and other undervaccinated regions struggling to combat the ultra-contagious Delta variant.
\u201cUntil there's sufficient supply, more vaccines for some mean fewer for others. We can solve this problem by scaling up manufacturing, especially of the mRNA vaccines, which appear to be more effective, safer, and easier to rapidly scale and tweak for variants.\u201d— Dr. Tom Frieden (@Dr. Tom Frieden) 1629904210
According to the New York Times, which first reported on PrEP4All's new analysis:
White House officials say that it is not possible for them to scale up production quickly, in part because of a scarcity of raw materials, and that doing so would take three to five years--an assertion that Dr. Tom Frieden, who directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the Obama-Biden administration, dismissed as "nonsense."
Dr. Frieden, now the president of Resolve to Save Lives, a health nonprofit, pointed to Lonza, a Swiss biotechnology company, which entered into an agreement with the vaccine maker Moderna in May 2020, retrofitted its facility in Portsmouth, N.H., and was producing vaccine six months later.
"People say, 'Oh, it's going to take months,'" Dr. Frieden said. "Well, Covid is with us for years. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today."
Krellenstein, who authored PrEP4All's new report, called the Biden administration's failure to adequately invest in producing a greater supply of doses "inexplicable given the current crisis in global vaccine access," and he emphasized that time is of the essence.
"With many countries unlikely to have widespread access to vaccines until 2023, continued transmission of Covid-19 increases the risk of even worse variants than Delta that undermine the ability of even our most potent vaccines," he said. "Not only is the failure to speed production of the vaccine a profound humanitarian disaster, but it's also a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States."
Dozens of Democratic lawmakers have tried to make the same point, but so far to little avail.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) is among the leaders of an effort by congressional Democrats and progressive advocates to ensure that $34 billion for increased vaccine production is included in the $3.5 trillion reconciliation legislation now being drafted.
Krishnamoorthi told the Times that the 116 Democrats who sent a letter to Biden earlier this month have yet to hear back from the White House.
The Biden administration's "lack of attention to executing a robust vaccination strategy abroad is arguably one of their biggest missteps with regard to Covid," he said.
Krellenstein was more incisive, telling the newspaper that "if they don't change course pretty soon, the Biden administration is going to be remembered in terms that the Reagan administration is remembered today in not dealing with the AIDS crisis."
While lawmakers attempt to increase public health funding in the reconciliation bill, Krellenstein implored the Biden administration to immediately "use the $16 billion allocated by Congress to go much further than it already has to ramp up the global supply of the vaccine that will stop more dangerous variants and ultimately end this pandemic."
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