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First Lady Jill Biden speaks at a Pop-Up Vaccination site at Ole Smoky Distillery on June 22, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

At The Olympics, Dr. Biden Should Be an Ambassador for Vaccine Equity

Dr. Biden should arrive with a message of global unity to tackle the virus, and a clear signal that the U.S. will lead rich nations in ensuring that everyone, everywhere has access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Liza Barrie

As First Lady Dr. Jill Biden prepares to lead the U.S. delegation to the Tokyo Olympic Games this week, a global pandemic rages. Yet it is not raging equally. Some of the countries sending athletes to the Games have secured more than enough COVID-19 vaccines for their populations and are even discussing booster shots—or are already rolling them out. Meanwhile, many lower-income countries are barely reaching a 1 percent vaccination rate; people are needlessly dying waiting for a vaccine, while the virus continues to spread and mutate, becoming more dangerous for us all.

The U.S. should use this global moment of unity to make a clear statement that people matter more than pharmaceutical profits.

The Games will look different this year. There will be no spectators in the stadium or gyms. Tokyo is under a state of emergency, experiencing a sharp spike in infections. Japanese advocates and medical professionals, worried about the spread of COVID-19, have even called for the Olympics to be cancelled. Global leaders will be unable to ignore the deadly backdrop of the pandemic at the Games. That's why Dr. Biden should arrive with a message of global unity to tackle the virus, and a clear signal that the U.S. will lead rich nations in ensuring that everyone, everywhere has access to COVID-19 vaccines.

So far, wealthy countries have not done our part. In fact, some rich nations have even impeded global vaccination efforts by hoarding doses and refusing to share vaccine recipes. While 85 percent of shots administered globally have been in high- and upper-middle-income countries, only 0.3 percent of doses have been administered in low-income countries.

WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, commenting on the prospect of wealthy countries providing booster shots while much of the world has yet to see any doses at all, stated it plainly: vaccine inequality is driven by greed. We couldn't agree more. That's why we've sent a letter to Dr. Biden asking her to be an ambassador for vaccine equality and bring an ambitious plan to vaccinate the world with her to the Olympics. It's past time for wealthy nations, and the U.S. in particular, to demonstrate solidarity with decisive action to reverse this global injustice.

President Biden has said that he wants the United States to be "the world's arsenal of vaccines." But so far, he has only promised inadequate donations of doses. That is helpful, but very far from the full-scale mobilization of resources needed to end the pandemic.

The U.S. should use this global moment of unity to make a clear statement that people matter more than pharmaceutical profits. In a recent earnings report, Pfizer increased its forecast for COVID-19 vaccine sales this year to $26 billion. But for less than what Pfizer will earn selling vaccines this year, President Biden can mobilize a manufacturing program to vaccinate the world. Public Citizen recently released analysis showing that $25 billion could retrofit existing facilities, hire and train staff, and acquire enough raw materials for mRNA COVID-19 vaccine production to produce 8 billion doses in one year. This is enough to vaccinate 80% of the population of low- and middle-income countries—enough to support global herd immunity.

More than 60 organizations have demanded bold action from President Biden to make this plan a reality. The People's Vaccine Alliance has also launched a campaign using the Olympic Games and the power of sport to pressure world leaders to #StopPlayingGames on vaccine access.

So, the question remains for Dr. Biden: When your flight touches down in Tokyo, will you be carrying a message of vaccine unity, or will it be business as usual: more vaccine apartheid, more global inequality in fighting the virus, and a longer and more deadly pandemic for all of us?

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Liza Barrie

Liza Barrie is the Campaign Director for Global Vaccine Access at Public Citizen.


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