One year ago, the U.S. was the deadliest hotspot of the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing the cancellation of the Group of Seven summit it was due to host. Now, the U.S. is emerging as a model for how to successfully emerge from more than 15 months of global crisis.
For President Joe Biden, who is meeting with leaders of the wealthy G-7 democracies on his first overseas trip since taking office, it’s a personal vindication of his pledge to turn around the U.S. virus, but also a call to action to enlist other countries in the global fight.
In a speech on the eve of the summit, Biden on Thursday will unveil plans for the U.S. to donate 500 million vaccine doses around the globe over the next year, on top of 80 million he has already pledged by the end of the month. U.S. officials say Biden will also include a direct request to his fellow G-7 leaders to do the same.
“We have to end COVID-19, not just at home — which we’re doing — but everywhere,” Biden told American servicemembers Wednesday on the first stop of his three-country, eight-day trip, adding that the effort “requires coordinated, multilateral action.”
“There’s no wall high enough to keep us safe from this pandemic or the next biological threat we face — and there will be others,” he added.
The U.S. has faced mounting pressure to outline its global vaccine sharing plan, especially as inequities in supply around the world have become more pronounced, and the demand for shots in the U.S. has dropped precipitously in recent weeks.
The new U.S. commitment is to purchase and donate 500 million Pfizer doses for distribution through the global COVAX alliance to 92 lower-income countries and the African Union, bringing the first steady supply of mRNA vaccine to the countries that need it most. The U.S. is now set to be COVAX’s largest vaccine donor in addition to its single largest funder with a $4 billion commitment.
The global alliance has thus far distributed just 81 million doses, and parts of the world, particularly in Africa, remain vaccine deserts.
After leading the world in new cases and deaths over much of the last year, the rapid vaccination program in the U.S. now positions the country among the leaders of the global recovery. Nearly 64% of adults in the U.S. have received at least one vaccine dose and the average numbers of new positive cases and deaths in the U.S. are lower now than at any point since the earliest days of the pandemic.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last week projected that the U.S. economy would grow at a rate of 6.9% this year, making it one of the few nations for which forecasts are rosier now than before the pandemic.
U.S. officials are hopeful the summit will conclude with a communique showing a commitment from the G-7 countries and other invited nations to do more to help vaccinate the world and support public health globally.
“I don’t anticipate contention on the issue of vaccines. I anticipate convergence,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Wednesday. “Because we’re all converging around the idea that we need to boost vaccine supply in a number of ways: sharing more of our own doses — and we’ll have more to say on that; helping get more manufacturing capacity around the world — we’ll have more to say on that; and, of course, doing what’s necessary across the chain of custody from when the vaccine is produced to when it gets in someone’s arms in the rural developing world, and we’ll have more to say on that.”
Last week, the White House unveiled plans to donate an initial allotment of 25 million doses of surplus vaccine overseas, mostly through the United Nations-backed COVAX program, promising infusions for South and Central America, Asia, Africa and others.
Officials say a quarter of that excess will be kept in reserve for emergencies and for the U.S. to share directly with allies and partners, including South Korea, Taiwan and Ukraine.
Sullivan noted that Biden has previously committed to turning the U.S. into a modern day “arsenal of democracies” for vaccines, but that the country also has health reasons for spreading vaccinations — preventing the rise of potentially dangerous variants — and geostrategic ones as well.
China and Russia have shared, with varying success, their domestically produced vaccines with some needy countries, often with hidden strings attached. Sullivan said Biden “does want to show — rallying the rest of the world’s democracies — that democracies are the countries that can best deliver solutions for people everywhere.”
The U.S.-produced mRNA vaccines have also proven to be more effective against both the original strain and more dangerous variants of COVID-19 than the more conventional vaccines produced by China and Russia. Some countries that have had success in deploying those conventional vaccines have nonetheless seen cases spike.
Biden’s decision to purchase the doses, officials said, was meant to keep them from getting locked up by richer nations that have the means to enter into purchasing agreements directly with manufacturers. Just last month, the European Commission signed an agreement to purchase as many as 1.8 billion Pfizer doses in the next two years, a significant share of the company’s upcoming production — though the bloc reserved the right to donate some of its doses to COVAX.
Global public health groups have been aiming to use this week’s G-7 meetings to press the nation’s wealthiest democracies to do more to share vaccines with the world, and Biden’s plans drew immediate praise toward that end.
Tom Hart, acting CEO at The ONE Campaign, a nonprofit that seeks to end poverty, said Biden’s announcement was “the kind of bold leadership that is needed to end this global pandemic.”
“We urge other G-7 countries to follow the U.S.’ example and donate more doses to COVAX,” he added. “If there was ever a time for global ambition and action to end the pandemic, it’s now.”
But others have called on the U.S. to do even more.
“Charity is not going to win the war against the coronavirus,” said Niko Lusiani, Oxfam America’s vaccine lead. “At the current rate of vaccinations, it would take low-income countries 57 years to reach the same level of protection as those in G-7 countries. That’s not only morally wrong, it’s self-defeating given the risk posed by coronavirus mutations.”
Biden last month broke with European allies to endorse waiving intellectual property rules at the World Trade Organization to promote vaccine production and equity. But many in his own administration acknowledge that the restrictions were not the driving cause of the global vaccine shortage, which has more to do with limited manufacturing capacity and shortages of delicate raw materials.