The United States will release an additional $2 billion over two years once other donors have made good on their pledges and will use this week’s G-7 summit to rally other countries to do more.
The money, which was appropriated by a bipartisan congressional vote last year, will give a much needed boost to a program jointly led by Gavi, the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.
Thomas Bollyky, director of the global health program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the money would be significant for Covax, which has struggled to raise enough funding since it was announced last year.
“Certainly earlier funds would have been helpful to Covax,” said Bollyky. “But there’s not much point in going back to that point. The question is, what can we do now? And this is a signal at least that the U.S. intends to invest in and bolster Covax as a mechanism to meet the world’s vaccine needs.”
Covax aims to get coronavirus vaccines to low- and middle-income countries that have been cut out of a vaccine race that’s seen rich countries snap up the majority of doses, leaving everyone else to wait.
Although more than 190 countries have agreed to participate, the Trump administration opted out, in part because of the former president’s feud with the WHO.
But so far the initiative has not begun deliveries, and it has struggled not just with funding but also competition from wealthy nations who pursued bilateral deals.
“These kinds of political commitments do matter and make a difference,” said Sema Sgaier, an assistant professor of public health at Harvard and co-founder of nonprofit Surgo Ventures, adding that confirmed funding would allow Covax to pursue new deals.
Covax plans to start distributing vaccines in the first half of this year. On Thursday, Gavi announced a memorandum of understanding with Novavax for 1.1 billion doses of their vaccine, adding to earlier deals with Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Sanofi and Johnson and Johnson.
The White House announcement comes amid growing concern from global health experts that the inequitable distribution of vaccines could prolong the pandemic, not only leaving vulnerable people in developing countries at risk but also raising the possibility of new variants.
U.N. Secretary General António Guterres slammed the distribution of vaccines as “wildly uneven and unfair” at a Security Council meeting Wednesday, saying that 10 countries accounted for 75 percent of all vaccinations to date.
Global vaccine distribution is among the planned topics of discussion for Friday’s G-7 meeting, which is being hosted by Britain and will be held remotely. A number of world leaders have made proposals ahead of the closed-door meeting.
In remarks published Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron said the United States and Europe should provide coronavirus vaccines to developing countries by donating up to 5 percent of the doses they have ordered.
“We are allowing the idea to take hold that hundreds of millions of vaccines are being given in rich countries and that we are not starting in poor countries,” Macron said in an interview with the Financial Times.
While Western-made vaccines are being sold to African nations at “astronomical prices,” he said, those same countries are being offered cheaper Chinese and Russian shots “of uncertain efficacy against new variants of the virus.”
Macron suggested allocating 4 to 5 percent of current vaccine supplies in Europe and the United States and transferring it quickly to developing nations “so that people on the ground see it happening.”
High-income countries have so far secured over 4.6 billion doses among them — far more than all middle-income and lower-income countries combined, which had secured 2.5 billion, according to Duke University.
Macron said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel supported his plan to donate doses and that he hoped it would find backing from the United States and European allies. It is not clear if other nations would back donations of doses to other countries before the majority of their country has been vaccinated.
In a separate announcement, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would call on world leaders to back efforts to speed up the development of vaccines to just 100 days to better fight future outbreaks.
While coronavirus vaccines were developed and put to market in as little as 300 days, easily a historical record, Johnson said that in the future this needed to happen quicker.
“By harnessing our collective ingenuity, we can ensure we have the vaccines, treatments and tests to be battle-ready for future health threats, as we beat Covid-19 and build back better together,” the British prime minister said in a statement released Thursday.
The British prime minister also said the country would donate surplus vaccine supply through Covax, in addition to over $760 million in funding already allocated, but did not give a time frame.