• The San Juan Daily Star

Biden calls on global partners to bolster the world’s COVID-19 response: ‘We need to go big.’

President Joe Biden attends a United Nations General Assembly COVID-19 videoconference, from the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021.

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg

Declaring “we need to go big,” President Joe Biden on Wednesday called on other world leaders, pharmaceutical executives, philanthropists and civil society organizations to band together to forge a global consensus around a plan to fight the coronavirus crisis.

Speaking at the opening of a virtual COVID-19 summit he is convening in conjunction with the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, Biden cited two especially urgent challenges: vaccinating the world against COVID-19 and solving a global oxygen crisis, which is leading to unnecessary deaths among COVID-19 patients who might survive if oxygen were available.

“We’re not going to solve this crisis with half-measures or middle-of-the-road ambitions. We need to go big,” the president said. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck crisis.”

But it may be hard to turn Biden’s words into reality. Less than 10% of the population of poor nations — and less than 4% of the African population — has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Worldwide, 79% of shots that have been administered have been in high- and upper-middle-income countries, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. COVAX, the World Health Organization-backed international vaccine initiative, is behind schedule in delivering shots to the low- and middle-income nations that need them the most.

Around the world, more than 4.5 million people have died of COVID-19 — a “global tragedy,” Biden said. The president also announced a new partnership with the European Union aimed at expanding access to vaccines. And Vice President Kamala Harris announced that the United States would contribute $250 million to start a new global fund that the administration hopes will raise $10 billion to fight future pandemics.

Still, some activists say that Biden’s new plan for donating doses is not fast enough to meet the WHO’s targets for raising vaccine coverage in poorer nations. Of the 1.1 billion doses that the U.S. has committed to donating, only 300 million are expected to be shipped this year.

But critics of the administration had low expectations for the gathering.

“This summit deserves to be, needs to be, a debate of historic dimensions,” said Peter Maybarduk, access to medicines director for Public Citizen, the consumer advocacy organization, which has been urging the administration to adopt a $25 billion plan to scale up vaccine manufacturing around the world.

“But it won’t be that kind of debate,” he added, noting that he thought the hosts would unlikely be significantly challenged by less powerful governments and vulnerable people. “It will not produce the transformative response needed to end the pandemic,” he said.

The summit began with Biden and other world leaders, including António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, gathering virtually for a small panel discussion titled “Call the World to Account and Vaccinate the World,” moderated by Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations. Participants include other presidents and prime ministers, including President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, according to an agenda obtained by The New York Times.

Earlier Wednesday, Pfizer-BioNTech announced that it had struck a deal with the Biden administration to sell the U.S. an additional 500 million doses of its coronavirus vaccine, to be donated to nations that need them.

Biden heralded the deal in his opening remarks, saying it would bring the total number of doses his administration has purchased for donation to 1.1 billion. “Put another way, for every one shot we’ve administered to pay in America, we have now committed to do three shots to the rest of the world,” he said.

Drug company executives, philanthropists and leaders of nonprofit organizations have also been invited to the summit, which administration officials say is the largest gathering of heads of state to date to address the global pandemic.

Biden has been under intense pressure from global health experts to do more to address the vaccine shortage — and in particular expand manufacturing around the world. Biden said the U.S. is doing so, through a partnership with India, Japan and Australia that, he said, “is on track to produce at least 1 billion vaccine doses in India to boost the global supply by the end of 2022.”

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, delivered remarks to the global COVID-19 summit Wednesday that “high-income countries have pledged more than 1 billion doses, but less than 15% of those doses have materialized” for lower-income countries.

“We need an ironclad global commitment today to support the vaccination of at least 40% of the population of every country by the end of this year, and 70% by mid-2022,” Tedros said. “As the president said, we can do this.”

Asked Wednesday about criticism of the U.S. moving to provide booster doses to some already inoculated people while much of the world lacks vaccines, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, reiterated the administration’s view that “we can do both, and it’s a false choice.”

Psaki said the U.S. had already donated more vaccines to other countries than every other nation combined, and would continue to share doses and scale manufacturing abroad.

“But we also need the world to do more, especially developed countries” to battle the pandemic, Psaki said.

Drug manufacturers are also under pressure to do more. The Biden administration has urged both Pfizer and Moderna to enter into joint ventures where they would license their technology to contract manufacturers, with the aim of providing vaccines to low- and middle-income countries, according to a senior administration official.

Those talks led to the Pfizer donation, but the talks with Moderna have not borne fruit, the official said.

At a briefing held by Physicians for Human Rights earlier this week, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO’s chief scientist, sounded a note of urgency and issued a plea for nations to work together to distribute vaccines in a coordinated — and equitable — fashion. She also urged countries to share their excess supplies.

“A country-by-country approach, a nationalistic approach, is not going to get us out of this pandemic,” she said. “And that’s where we are today.”

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