Biden pledges US support as COVAX faces shortfall of 140 million doses
The US will work with the WHO-backed COVAX facility and other partners for the equitable distribution of some 80 million Covid-19 vaccines from its stockpiles in line with scientific and public health data from around the world, President Joe Biden has said.
The move comes at a time when COVAX, which signed advance agreements to procure hundreds of millions of doses for low-income countries, has been floundering because of a shortfall in supplies from the Serum Institute of India (SII) after India curtailed exports from March to cope with a devastating second wave of infections.
People familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity that COVAX’s supply shortfall will be 140 million doses by the end of May, and if supplies from SII continue to be disrupted, this figure is estimated to rise to 190 million doses by the end of June.
The US administration will also mount a multilateral effort with democracies to cope with the pandemic, and Biden said he expects to announce progress in these efforts at the G7 Summit to be hosted by the UK in June.
Biden announced on Monday the US will share 20 million doses from its surplus stocks of Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines by the end of June. This will be in addition to the earlier US commitment to share 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine with other countries.
The announcement marked the first time the US has said it will share the three vaccines that are authorised for use in the country, and the move stems from the Biden administration’s belief that it will have enough doses to protect all Americans by June.
The US is believed to currently have around 10 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which hasn’t yet been approved for use in the country, and the stockpile is expected to swell to 60 million doses by the end of June. The Biden administration has said these doses will be distributed only after the vaccine clears a safety review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Explaining the procedure for the distribution of surplus vaccines, a White House fact-sheet said: “The United States will work with COVAX and other partners to ensure these vaccines are delivered in a way that is equitable and follows the science and public health data.”
It added, “In the weeks ahead, working with the world’s democracies the Biden-Harris Administration will coordinate a multilateral effort to end the pandemic. We look forward to progress on this at the G7 Summit in June.”
The fact-sheet said the US will send the 80 million doses to countries battling the pandemic “by the end of June”, and that donations from America’s excess supply will continue “as that supply is delivered to us”.
The people cited above said greater clarity on how the US would share its surplus stocks is expected over the next few days. “We will know if the distribution will be through COVAX or the US will use the COVAX distribution model. We also have other issues to deal with, such as which countries will get the vaccines and how many doses,” said one of the people.
COVAX is co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, World Health Organization (WHO) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. A spokesperson for Gavi said discussions were on with the Indian government and SII to find an “optimal solution” to the shortfall in vaccine supplies and to make up for lost time in administering vaccines.
“We are in talks with the government of India and remain hopeful that deliveries will resume, even if in a much reduced capacity, in the third quarter,” the spokesperson said, adding these efforts are aimed at finding the best way forward for India and neighbouring countries.
The “key immediate challenge” is getting adequate doses for Bangladesh, Nepal and other African countries to deliver the second dose to people who had received the first shot, the spokesperson said.
Besides the US administration’s announcement, there were pledges for more than 20 million doses by other countries, including France (13 million), Spain (7.5 million), the United Arab Emirates and Sweden (one million doses each), the spokesperson said.
The White House reiterated what Biden had said about the distribution of vaccines not being linked to securing favours from other countries, an apparent reference to similar efforts by China and Russia.
“Just as in World War Two America was the arsenal of democracy, in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, our nation is going to be the arsenal of vaccines for the rest of the world. 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,” Biden said.
The US administration recently said it is looking at the joint production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in India and ways to help Indian manufacturers such as the Serum Institute of India (SII) to ramp up production to meet vaccine needs around the globe.
The US administration is working on the Indian government’s list of raw materials and other supplies urgently needed to manufacture vaccines but American officials have cautioned this won’t be an easy task because of disruptions to global supply chains.
The US has also diverted enough AstraZeneca manufacturing supplies from its own pre-existing orders to produce more than 20 million doses in India.
The US is working with the private sector and other partners to expand global vaccine manufacturing and distribution and production of vital raw materials. The US International Development Finance Corporation has launched a global vaccine initiative that is targeting investments in multiple regions to address short-term requirements and intermediate-term efforts to ensure better preparedness for future health emergencies.
This includes the Quad Vaccine Partnership to supply a billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines, including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, by the end of 2022.
The Biden administration has also backed a proposal first mooted by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization (WTO) last year for waiving intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines, though officials have warned that this will involve complex negotiations that could take months, if not years. The European Union, however, has not shown an inclination to endorse this move.