4 min read.Updated: 11 Jun 2021, 05:31 AM ISTBloomberg
President Joe Biden announced the U.S. would begin shipping a half-billion donated doses of Pfizer Inc. coronavirus vaccines to countries in dire need in August
President Joe Biden announced the U.S. would begin shipping a half-billion donated doses of Pfizer Inc. coronavirus vaccines to countries in “dire need" in August, making good on a promise to lead the global campaign against the pandemic.
Biden said Thursday the U.S. purchase and donation of Pfizer’s shots would be the largest of any single country so far, and that the vaccines would come “with no strings attached" -- a veiled criticism of Russia and China, which he’s accused of using vaccines as leverage in their foreign policy.
“We know the tragedy. We also know the path to recovery," Biden said at Tregenna Castle in St. Ives, U.K. before a Group of Seven summit. “The key to reopening and growing economies is to vaccinate your people."
The plan came together over about four weeks of negotiations between White House officials and Pfizer executives, spurred in part by a surge of Covid-19 cases in India, which led the country to halt vaccine exports, according to two people familiar with the matter. India’s Serum Institute had been filling much of the global demand for shots; its sudden shift to domestic production in part led Biden’s team to accelerate its efforts, the officials said.
He pointed out that the U.S. is donating Pfizer’s advanced mRNA-based vaccine, which he said has “proven to be extremely effective against Covid-19 and every known variant of the vaccine thus far." The donation, he said, would benefit Americans by helping to stamp out the pandemic abroad before more dangerous variants arise.
“Our values call on us to do everything we can to vaccinate the world against Covid-19," he said. “As long as the virus rages elsewhere, there’s a risk of new mutations that could threaten our people."
Biden spoke with Pfizer chairman and chief executive Albert Bourla, who said his company is prepared to create a new shot within 100 days to combat any dangerous mutation that might arise, and is also working on an oral treatment for Covid-19.
“Initial indications are promising, and if things go well, we could apply for approval before the end of this year," Bourla said.
Negotiations zeroed in on Pfizer because the Biden administration believed the company could deliver the most doses this year -- 200 million, beginning in August, followed by 300 million more in 2022, the officials said. The Biden team doesn’t think it will have to invoke the Defense Production Act as part of the new order, the officials said.
The wartime-powers law had been used to give priority to early orders for domestic U.S. consumption and helped Pfizer and other manufacturers scale up their production.
Earlier Thursday, U.S. officials said the Biden administration would cut in half its $4 billion commitment to an international vaccine consortium to help pay for the purchase of the Pfizer shots.
The money previously pledged to Covax, a World Health Organization-backed group intended to equitably distribute vaccines around the world, instead will go toward an estimated $3.5 billion bill for the vaccines, which the U.S. is buying at cost -- about $7 a dose, the officials said.
The Pfizer shots will go to 92 lower-income nations selected by Covax. The U.S. will consult scientists as it focuses vaccine distribution on low-income countries where inoculations could make the biggest impact in stemming the pandemic, the officials said.
The move may be a setback for Covax, as the $2 billion the U.S. now plans to use to buy shots directly had been intended to spur other countries to make or increase their own pledges to the consortium. Covax has struggled to obtain enough shots to meet its goal of delivering 1.8 billion doses of vaccine to lower-income countries by early 2022.
The U.S. officials said the shift shouldn’t be read as a judgment of Covax. It will allow the administration to quickly turn $2 billion into an order for 500 million doses -- more shots, delivered more quickly, than the Biden team thought could be found elsewhere. Covax’s biggest need now is doses, not money, the officials said.
Covax and one of its partner organizations, the international pediatric vaccination group Gavi, were involved in talks on the U.S. purchase of Pfizer shots, the officials said. The officials said the administration plans to donate the shots to Covax, but will work with the consortium to determine how to allocate the doses in the most appropriate way.
The WHO said in a statement Thursday that it “welcomes this important contribution to Covax from the U.S.A., which will see more vaccines put to work protecting some of the most vulnerable people in the world from August onward."
“We encourage countries to step forward and share doses immediately, in June and July, to address the urgent supply gap Covax is currently facing," the organization said.
Biden is pivoting toward a worldwide vaccination strategy as domestic demand for shots wanes. The pace of U.S. shots has fallen by more than two-thirds since April, leaving the administration a glut of doses, some of which are at risk of expiring.
Biden faced international criticism for hoarding early flows of vaccines, allowing his nation to swiftly jump ahead of others in the pace of vaccinations. The disparity will be plain even around the G-7 table when the summit opens on Friday. The U.S. and U.K. have fully vaccinated over 40% of their populations; Germany, Italy, and France are at about 25%; Canada and Japan are well under 10%.
Biden’s initial Covax pledge was $2 billion, still the most of any nation. He promised another $2 billion to match donations from other countries. But that money was never allocated to the organization, and the plan described by the officials on Thursday would instead redirect the funds to buy the Pfizer vaccines.
Biden’s administration has previously announced it would donate about 19 million doses of vaccines through Covax, but that the U.S. would retain final say over which countries receive them.
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