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A worker unloads a shipment of coronavirus vaccines

A member of the Colombian Air Force unloads 2.5 million coronavirus vaccine doses donated by the U.S. on July 1, 2021. (Photo: Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images)

Dems Sound Alarm as Key US Vaccine Agency 'Running Out of Money'

"We cannot afford to waste another moment and risk the emergence of yet another, even more dangerous variant," Democratic lawmakers write in a new letter.

Jake Johnson

As the House Democratic leadership prepared to fast-track a vote to provide $500 million in additional military aid to Ukraine, a small contingent of congressional Democrats argued that the federal government's immediate attention should be on the United States' flagging pandemic response—particularly on the global stage.

In a letter to President Joe Biden on Tuesday, nine Democratic lawmakers warned that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is "a little over a month away from running out of money" to finance its global vaccination efforts as coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths remain elevated worldwide.

"The only way to end this pandemic and stop the emergence of new variants is to vaccinate the world."

"The world is at a critical juncture in the fight against this pandemic, as the Omicron variant threatens to undo much of the progress we have made here in the United States and around the world," the Democrats wrote. "This year will be the most operationally intensive period of the pandemic for USAID as it works to vaccinate 70% of the populations of low- and lower-middle-income countries—a herculean task given that more than 30 countries have vaccinated less than 10% of their populations."

"The only way to end this pandemic and stop the emergence of new variants," they added, "is to vaccinate the world, and it is absolutely crucial that these activities are adequately funded."

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), vice chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and a signatory to the new letter, stressed Tuesday that there's "nothing more important" at present than bolstering the global coronavirus response.

"I'm beside myself about what's happening in Ukraine," Malinowski told the Washington Post. "But if your focus is on America's foreign policy and you're not waking up every morning and going to sleep every night thinking about vaccinating the world against Covid, then there’s something wrong."

That USAID is strapped for cash is hardly news to the White House. Last month, just as Biden signed legislation authorizing $778 billion in military spending for Fiscal Year 2022, officials warned that USAID will fall short of its global vaccination commitments without a swift infusion of funds.

In their letter Tuesday, the group of Democrats—which included Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)—urged the Biden administration to "include $17 billion in supplemental funding for American-led efforts to vaccinate the world against Covid-19 in any formal supplemental request to Congress."

One estimate puts the cost of vaccinating the world at $25 billion.

"We cannot afford to waste another moment and risk the emergence of yet another, even more dangerous variant. USAID needs this funding, and their essential work must not be delayed or at all hindered," the lawmakers continued. "The time to end the pandemic is now."

Throughout its first year in power, the Biden administration has faced vocal criticism from public health experts and campaigners for not doing nearly enough to fight the pandemic at the global level as billions around the world go without access to lifesaving shots and therapeutics.

"We should be leading the charge to transfer technology."

Specifically, the administration has faced backlash for failing to allocate sufficient funding to global vaccine manufacturing, hoarding the artificially scarce supply of doses, refusing to force U.S. pharmaceutical giants to share their technology, and taking a backseat to stalled negotiations over a potentially transformative patent waiver—which Biden endorsed back in May.

While the U.S. has shipped nearly 400 million coronavirus vaccine doses overseas—largely through Covax, an initiative that is also running out of money—that's well shy of the 1 billion doses it has pledged to deliver.

And even if the U.S. ultimately lives up to its donation pledges, critics have consistently argued that vaccine charity alone will not be sufficient to end the pandemic.

"I commend Biden for doubling the U.S. commitment for vaccine donations to the developing world. But we can do far more," Michelle Williams, dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, argued in an op-ed for the Post earlier this week. "We should be leading the charge to transfer technology and establish coronavirus vaccine production in the Global South. We should be strengthening cold chains to safely transport vaccines, training healthcare workers to deliver them, and helping to build better data systems. These investments will yield benefits well beyond Covid-19."


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