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Biden boosts vaccine donations, but critics say far more is needed

Donation of at least 20 million doses is ‘step in the right direction’ but a fraction of what’s necessary, they say

President Biden with Vice President Harris after speaking about donation of coronavirus vaccines. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Biden announced Monday that his administration will send at least 20 million doses of U.S.-authorized coronavirus vaccines abroad by the end of June, a decision that comes amid criticism that the United States has hoarded doses and done too little to fight the pandemic beyond its borders.

The announcement marks the first time the United States has said it will share vaccines authorized for domestic use. The shipments will include doses from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. Biden had previously committed to share up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine overseas, although the United States has not authorized that vaccine for domestic use yet and the doses remain under review by the Food and Drug Administration.

“There’s a lot of talk about Russia and China influencing the world with vaccines. We want to lead the world with our values, with this demonstration of our innovation, ingenuity and the fundamental decency of the American people,” Biden said Monday afternoon in a speech from the East Room of the White House.

Biden also announced that Jeff Zients, the nation’s domestic coronavirus coordinator, will lead the effort to share vaccine doses globally. Zients will work in coordination with the National Security Council and other agency partners, including Gayle Smith, who is coordinating global diplomatic outreach at the State Department.

“We’re going to bring the same whole-of-government response to the global effort that made us so successful here at home,” Biden said.

Kevin Munoz, a White House spokesman, said Zients was tapped for the role because of his success in overseeing the domestic effort, which has required working across multiple federal agencies and in collaboration with state governments.

In recent weeks, Biden has been pressed to share more vaccine doses with the world and to develop a strategy to better distribute them as supply in the United States outstrips demand, even as deaths surge abroad. Nearly half of Americans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to data compiled by The Washington Post, compared with less than 5 percent of people in Asia and about 1 percent in Africa.

“It’s great to share, but redistributing 20 million existing doses has little impact on the global demand for the 10-to-15 billion doses needed,” said Lori Wallach, who oversees global trade work for advocacy organization Public Citizen. “Obviously, it’s better to share than not, but it’s like offering 20 million bites from our existing slice of pizza when … we need to be getting a bunch of new pizza production lines going as fast as possible.”

Across the administration, officials acknowledged that the donation of 20 million doses would not substantively affect the effort to vaccinate the world but stressed that Biden’s announcement was just the “next step” of a larger effort.

The appointment of Zients to oversee the effort signals to some the increasing recognition of the central role that U.S. manufacturing will play in producing the worldwide supply, particularly given Zients’s efforts to work with Pfizer and Moderna to bulk up the country’s domestic supplies.

Amanda Glassman, executive vice president at the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit think tank, framed Biden’s announcement as “a step in the right direction” but said the pledged donations remained incremental. She also warned that Zients, a longtime business executive and domestic policy expert, would face new challenges trying to oversee global health policy decisions, too.

Glassman called on the United States to push its global allies to follow through on their commitments to support Covax, the World Health Organization-backed initiative to distribute vaccine doses equitably around the globe. The head of UNICEF on Monday warned that the surging coronavirus outbreak in India and other factors had led to a shortfall of tens of millions of doses that Covax hoped to use to help vaccinate low- and middle-income countries.

Meanwhile, China and Russia have worked out deals to sell or donate their vaccine doses to dozens of countries, sparking bipartisan concern that the United States is ceding ground to international rivals.

“We’re all here listening and frankly wondering why can’t we move as quickly as Russia and China to decide precisely what we want to do [and] where we want to do it and communicate that to the world?” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) at a Senate hearing last week on the Biden administration’s global coronavirus strategy.

Some observers said Biden’s recent pledges — like his decision to support waiving intellectual property protections on coronavirus vaccines — did not add up to a comprehensive plan and might even create new complications. For instance, drug companies have warned passing the waiver at the World Trade Organization would impede their efforts to scale up manufacturing, and German leaders have also raised concerns about its impact on production.

“What remains lacking is a cohesive strategy,” said Krishna Udayakumar, director of Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Center. “For example, how do IP waivers fit with today’s announcement? What about increasing global manufacturing capacity? Will the U.S. ease export restrictions to facilitate more effective global manufacturing? Still many unanswered questions.”