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Vaccine equity campaigners posing as G7 leaders tussle over a giant mock syringe

Vaccine equity campaigners posing as the leaders of G7 nations tussle over a giant mock syringe on June 11, 2021 near Falmouth, Cornwall, United Kingdom. (Photo: Andrew Aitchison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Health Advocates Say Biden's Global Covid-19 Summit Must Be 'More Than Just PR'

"The president has said that the U.S. will serve as a vaccine arsenal for the world. Ten thousand people die each day waiting for ambitious action to match this vision."

Kenny Stancil

With the White House expected to propose a late-September international summit on the coronavirus pandemic response, health justice advocates on Thursday told the Biden administration that for the meeting to be "more than just PR," rich governments must commit to ramping up vaccine production and rectifying the grossly unequal distribution of lifesaving jabs.

"Biden has an opportunity to help launch an urgent global vaccine manufacturing, delivery, and knowledge sharing program that can fight variants and end the pandemic."
—Peter Maybarduk, Public Citizen

The global Covid-19 summit will reportedly take place during the week of September 20, coinciding with the United Nations General Assembly.

Earlier this week, COVAX, the U.N.-backed initiative to increase vaccine access in impoverished countries, announced that it is on track to allocate just 1.4 billion doses by the end of 2021—a 25% shortfall from its previous projection of 1.9 billion and nowhere near enough to inoculate the world's unvaccinated population.

In anticipation of the upcoming meeting, Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen's Access to Medicines program, said in a statement that "Covax's shortfall is President Joe Biden's responsibility, as it is the responsibility of leaders with means to fund the pandemic fight, share the knowledge to make vaccines, and deliver doses. It will cost many people their lives."

"It is critically important that a global Covid-19 summit be more than just PR," Maybarduk continued. "Biden has an opportunity to help launch an urgent global vaccine manufacturing, delivery, and knowledge-sharing program that can fight variants and end the pandemic."

As wealthy countries continue to hoard doses, fewer than 2% of adults in low-income nations have been at least partially vaccinated against the coronavirus. Even as billions in the Global South wait to receive their first jab, the Biden administration is planning to administer booster shots in the U.S. in the coming months, which epidemiologists and activists fear could further entrench "vaccine apartheid"—driving the global death toll, which has surpassed 4.6 million, even higher and increasing the likelihood that vaccine-resistant variants will emerge.

Biden received praise from progressives in May when he announced the U.S. would join more than 100 World Trade Organization (WTO) members in backing India and South Africa's popular proposal to suspend coronavirus-related intellectual property barriers for the duration of the pandemic, which would enable idle factories to use Big Pharma's formulas to produce generic vaccines without fear of legal consequences.

Many predicted that U.S. support for a temporary waiver of the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement would prompt other powerful holdouts to follow suit, but rich countries including Germany and the U.K. have continued to side with profiteering multinational drug companies in opposing a vaccine patent waiver. In addition, participation in C-TAP, the World Health Organization's voluntary technology transfer program, has been virtually nonexistent.

Despite these deadly setbacks, experts have argued for months that the U.S. government has other tools at its disposal—including its ownership of a key patent for the spike-protein technology used by at least five companies to develop mRNA vaccines—to compel pharmaceutical corporations to stop monopolizing publicly funded knowledge and start cooperating in the global vaccination effort.

"Millions of people have died waiting for such desperately needed action," said Maybarduk, who went on to outline steps the U.S. government and others worldwide should take to boost the artificially limited global vaccine supply and close the glaring gap in vaccination rates between high-income and low-income nations:

  • Invest $25 billion to make eight billion mRNA doses within one year and fully fund delivery;
  • Share knowledge and vaccine recipes to quickly bring regional production hubs online;
  • Waive intellectual property rules and call on Moderna and Pfizer to share vaccine recipes; and
  • Immediately reallocate excess doses to COVAX.

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 scaling up global production.

While the Biden administration has so far failed to take advantage of funding that Congress appropriated for that purpose, more than 100 Democratic lawmakers are fighting to ensure that billions of dollars for increased vaccine production is included in the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act now being drafted.

"The president has said that the U.S. will serve as a vaccine arsenal for the world," Maybarduk pointed out. "Ten thousand people die each day waiting for ambitious action to match this vision."

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