People receive the Pfizer vaccine in West Africa

People queue to receive a Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine dose at the Ajame main market on August 27, 2021 during a Covid-19 vaccination campaign in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire. (Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)

'The Virus Does Not Know Borders': Dems Launch Global Covid Vaccination Caucus

"The most important investment we can make in defeating the Covid pandemic is getting the world vaccinated as quickly as possible."

A group of congressional Democrats on Friday launched the "Covid-19 Global Vaccination Caucus" to pressure fellow lawmakers and the Biden White House to accelerate the distribution of lifesaving shots to poor countries, warning that failure to do so would prolong the deadly pandemic.

"If not now, when? After the next Greek letter variant emerges? We've got to tackle this right now."
--Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi

"At the end of the day, this pandemic is a monumental problem that requires a monumental solution that this caucus can provide," said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), who spearheaded the formation of the group alongside Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), and Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.).

"The virus does not know borders, and in order to defeat it, our efforts must be global in scope," Krishnamoorthi continued. "The Covid-19 Global Vaccination Caucus is advocating for the necessary immunization of the populations of the world's poorest countries in order to block dangerous variants from emerging and further harming them and us. Covid anywhere is a threat to everyone everywhere."

The launch of the new caucus comes just days after the World Health Organization (WHO) designated a coronavirus strain known as Mu as a "variant of interest," noting that early research indicates the mutation may be able to evade immunity provided by vaccination and antibodies. First identified in Colombia, Mu is one of five variants of interest the WHO is currently tracking, in addition to four "variants of concern"--the most prominent of which is the highly contagious Delta mutation.

Epidemiologists have long feared that allowing Covid-19 to run rampant among undervaccinated populations would increase the chances of a vaccine-resistant variant emerging and spreading widely, imperiling progress against the pandemic across the globe.

The best way to prevent such a nightmare scenario, experts argue, is to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines worldwide--something that the international community has not come anywhere close to achieving as rich nations continue to hoard doses and shield the pharmaceutical industry's monopoly control over production.

"If not now, when? After the next Greek letter variant emerges?" asked Krishnamoorthi. "We've got to tackle this right now."

Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, echoed that sense of urgency in a statement Friday.

"It is not only America's moral responsibility to quickly and equitably unleash the resources necessary to defeat this deadly virus abroad, but doing so will also keep us safe at home," Jayapal said. "I am proud to co-chair the Global Covid-19 Vaccination Caucus as we continue our urgent work to end this crisis and recognize that whether you live in the United States or around the world, your future is intertwined with mine--that we're all better off when we're all better off."

According to the latest figures from the University of Oxford's Our World in Data project, just 1.8% of the 5.4 billion coronavirus vaccine doses administered globally have gone to people in low-income countries. Less than 3% of the population of Africa has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

At a press conference earlier this week, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus decried what he called the "shocking inequities in access to vaccines" between rich and poor nations.

"Some countries are now rolling out booster doses to fully vaccinated people, when millions of people around the world have not even received their first dose," said Tedros. "That's why I have called for a moratorium on boosters, at least until the end of this month, to allow those countries that are furthest behind to catch up."

While Biden has endorsed a proposed patent waiver aimed at boosting global vaccine supply, advocates say he has not done nearly enough to pressure Germany, the United Kingdom, and other European allies to follow suit.

Democratic lawmakers, including members of the newly formed global vaccination caucus, have also urged Congress and the Biden administration to support a plan to invest $34 billion in global vaccine manufacturing and distribution. Thus far, according to a report released last week, the Biden administration has spent less than 0.01% of congressionally appropriated Covid-19 funds on bolstering global vaccine manufacturing.

"The most important investment we can make in defeating the Covid pandemic is getting the world vaccinated as quickly as possible," said Malinowski in a statement. "Accelerated production and global distribution of the vaccine will save lives."

Speaking to the Washington Post on Friday, Malinowski said he's glad the White House has committed to distributing 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to low-income countries by June of next year--but the New Jersey Democrat said that's far from sufficient to meet global needs.

"Five hundred million doses sounds like a very big number, but it's missing a zero," he said.

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