U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks from the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S. May 17, 2021. REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks from the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S. May 17, 2021. REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS

Washington — US President Joe Biden has to make good on his promise that the US will be an “arsenal” of coronavirus vaccines for the world, announcing he will share Food and Drug Administration-authorised shots after criticism that his administration is hoarding hundreds of millions of doses.

But he also signalled that he intends for US manufacturers to hold or grow their share of the global market for vaccines, casting his decision to begin supplying other countries as an engine for American jobs. He cautioned that American contributions alone will not resolve the crisis.

Biden on Monday announced that the US will soon send at least 20-million shots made by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to other countries for the first time, on top of a previous promise to share 60-million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that the Food and Drug Administration has not cleared for US use.

The amount Biden initially plans to share falls far short of worldwide demand. Billions of shots are needed to fully inoculate people in other countries, especially in low-income nations, and snuff out the virus. Advocacy groups questioned whether the US is doing enough to help countries that do not have access to vaccines.

Biden said he envisions the US leading an effort that would greatly expand domestic vaccine production, and that he would ask other countries to contribute financially.

“The US will continue to donate our excess supply as that supply is delivered to us, but that won’t be nearly enough,” Biden said on Monday. “What we need to do is lead an entirely new effort, an effort that involves working with the pharmaceutical companies and others, and partner nations, to vastly increase supply.”

Medecins Sans Frontieres was among groups that called Biden’s pledge inadequate, but it will nonetheless be welcomed by nations desperate to obtain any shots they can get. Many have publicly asked the US to share its supply.

‘Drop in the bucket’

“The number of doses they’ve committed is a drop in the bucket compared to the immense global need,” Dr Carrie Teicher, director of programmes at MSF-USA, said.

Biden’s announcement comes at a critical juncture, with the world grappling over how to boost vaccine production. US trade representative Katherine Tai this month gave her blessing to talks to lift intellectual property protections for coronavirus vaccines, a measure whose proponents hope would boost manufacturing across the southern hemisphere in particular. European leaders are opposed to the idea.

But Biden’s remarks on Monday signal that he does not consider patent waivers or new factories in other countries central to the push to boost manufacturing. He said the world must “vastly” increase supply, “most of it here in the US,” and said he wanted to create jobs at home.

“This will take longer than our immediate work to donate from the existing supplies, and we’re going to be asking other nations to help shoulder the economic cost of this effort, but the consequences will be more lasting and more dramatic,” he said. “Doing this will help us beat the pandemic and leave us with the manufacturing capacity here to prepare for the next crisis, the next vaccine needed.”

The US can spur production abroad and at home even without a patent waiver, said Susan Ostermann, an assistant professor of global affairs at the University of Notre Dame. She suggested the administration should provide incentives for the pharmaceutical industry to co-operate, something Biden alluded to Monday.

“I do see a role for the US and even a really big role, but I think there’s a lot more we can be doing to build capacity abroad,” she said. “There’s no need to be selfish when companies in the developing world can be producing vaccines more cheaply. We can do it; they can do it.”

Covax shortfall

Biden said he would “work with” Covax, a UN-led effort to provide vaccines to low-income countries, to “ensure that the vaccines are delivered in a way that is equitable, that follows the science and the public health data”, but stopped short of pledging to donate doses of US vaccines to the programme.

Covax expects its shortfall to reach 190-million doses next month, Unicef, one of its partners, said before Biden’s speech on Monday.

One of Biden’s top aides, Jeff Zients, will oversee efforts to send vaccines overseas. He will work with other officials, including Gayle Smith, a state department official, who previously led the ONE Campaign, an antipoverty advocacy group that urged Biden to give doses to Covax.

Biden’s announcement “is a welcome step towards helping the world put out this four-alarm fire and we urge these doses to go to Covax, the most equitable mechanism for delivering vaccines globally,” the campaign’s acting CEO, Tom Hart, said.

“The sooner the US and other wealthy countries develop a co-ordinated strategy for sharing vaccine doses with the world’s most vulnerable, the faster we will end the global pandemic for all,” Hart said.

Biden has not said specifically which vaccines the US plans to share or which countries will be first in line. He said the US would not use the shots for diplomatic leverage, accusing China and Russia of doing so.

“We’ll share these vaccines in the service of ending the pandemic everywhere and we will not use our vaccines to secure favours from other countries,” he said.

Biden said he would work with other democracies to “co-ordinate a multilateral effort to end this pandemic” and that he expects to “announce progress in this area at the G-7 summit in the UK in June.”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com.

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