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President Joe Biden speaks at a press conference

President Joe Biden speaks during an event on the Covid-19 response and vaccination program at the South Court Auditorium of Eisenhower Executive Office Building on July 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Experts Warn Biden's Global Vaccine Plan Lacks Ambition Crisis Demands

"Given the scale of the crisis, the president should be using every tool he has, and I don't think he is," said one observer.

Jake Johnson

Public health campaigners and experts warned Tuesday that the Biden administration's new strategy to bolster lagging global Covid-19 vaccination efforts is nowhere near ambitious enough to meet the life-or-death needs of poor nations, which are home to billions of people who have yet to receive a single dose.

"We need a real strategy, not just a vague commitment to expand manufacturing."
—Zain Rizvi, Public Citizen

Ahead of a virtual Covid-19 summit that the White House is set to host next week, the Biden administration outlined—and encouraged world leaders to support—a series of policy goals geared toward ensuring that 70% of the global population is vaccinated against the coronavirus by next year.

According to Our World in Data, just over 42% of the global population has received at least one vaccine dose, but the distribution of shots has been heavily skewed toward rich countries. Only 1.9% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, the latest available statistics show.

While the White House's global vaccination plan floats investments in regional vaccine manufacturing and technology transfer—which experts say will be necessary to defeat the pandemic—the strategy focuses heavily on donations flowing from rich to poor countries. Thus far, vaccine donations have been inadequate and slow to reach vulnerable populations in Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.

Peter Maybarduk, director of the Access to Medicines program at the U.S.-based advocacy group Public Citizen, told Common Dreams that "the Biden administration has the power to stand up manufacturing to make billions more doses within a year, and to share vaccine recipes with the world."

"It is not taking up a plan of that ambition here," Maybarduk said of the administration's plan. "Given the scale of the crisis, the president should be using every tool he has, and I don't think he is."

"Regional manufacturing and technology transfer are key to preventing medical apartheid in future pandemics," he continued. "They could help end this pandemic, too, but Biden treats technology transfer as a longer-term goal. There is only so much that can be done without exercising greater public power and challenging pharma's control of vaccine technology."

To ensure that Biden's upcoming Covid-19 summit is "more than just PR," Public Citizen is calling on the U.S. government to:

  • 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.

Biden's new strategy—summarized in a document first obtained by the Washington Post—notably does not mention the vaccine patent waiver that his administration endorsed in May. That proposal, which seeks to temporarily suspend intellectual property protections that are hindering global vaccine manufacturing, has been mired in fruitless negotiations for months as Germany, the United Kingdom, and other rich U.S. allies at the World Trade Organization continue to block it.

During a press conference with public health advocates on Tuesday, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) praised Biden for having the "courage" to support the patent waiver but said the president now must do more to "close the deal."

"The time has come to get Germany and other rich countries who are blocking the way to support this waiver," said Schakowsky, who warned that leaving much of the world without access to vaccines risks a "nightmare scenario" in which vaccine-resistant variants are allowed to emerge and spread widely.

"Time is absolutely of the essence," Schakowsky said, "because we know no one in the world is safe until everyone is safe."

Father Charles Chilufya, director of Justice and Ecology at the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar, said at Tuesday's event that "global leaders have power to do the right thing, but at present have chosen not to."

"But we believe that with his leadership, President Joe Biden can move other leaders for the first time to learn from history and respect life, respect human dignity, and understand the fact that this is about children dying, this is about children losing both of their parents and remaining vulnerable as orphans, this is about health workers who are left unprotected," Chilufya added. "It's human life at stake."

With the international patent waiver proposal stuck in ongoing WTO talks, the Biden administration has thus far resisted pressure to use U.S. ownership of at least one key patent as leverage to force major pharmaceutical companies to share their vaccine recipes with the rest of the world.

"The mismatch to date between the crisis we face and world leaders' failure to deliver on the concrete actions needed to end the pandemic is disastrous."
—Lori Wallach, Public Citizen

As a coalition of advocacy groups pointed out back in March, the U.S. government currently holds the patent for key spike-protein technology developed by the National Institutes of Health. That technology has been utilized by several major corporations in the development of coronavirus vaccines, including Moderna and Pfizer—both of which have refused to voluntarily participate in technology- and knowledge-sharing initiatives.

"If the U.S. government acts swiftly, it can help save hundreds of thousands of lives and stem the spread of variants," Maybarduk said in July. "Moderna and Pfizer's resistance to sharing the knowledge needed for countries to make vaccines is unforgivable. President Joe Biden has authority under existing law to order the sharing of vaccine recipes."

Zain Rizvi, a law and policy researcher at Public Citizen, told the Post that the Biden administration's new global vaccination targets are "important but insufficient" and cautioned that taking another year to achieve adequate global vaccine distribution means "millions of new infections, millions of new deaths, and millions of chances for the virus to mutate and escape the protection offered by existing vaccines."

"We need a real strategy, not just a vague commitment to expand manufacturing," said Rizvi. "President Biden should marshal the resources of the U.S. government and direct corporations to share technology to help end this pandemic."

Public Citizen's Lori Wallach emphasized Tuesday that "ending the pandemic is a political choice" and that "the world has the technical, the medical, [and] the financial means to vaccinate the world."

"The mismatch to date between the crisis we face and world leaders' failure to deliver on the concrete actions needed to end the pandemic is disastrous and unacceptable," said Wallach. "There are three clear steps: getting intellectual property monopoly barriers out of the way through a temporary WTO TRIPS waiver, technology transfer through sharing the recipes that the current monopoly producers have, and funding for the necessary global production so that people around the world are not reliant on a few monopoly sources."

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