This week, the leader of the free world declared the pandemic “over.” President Biden made the remarks during an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday. His remarks surprised White House officials, who quickly tried to walk them back, fearing they could impact the administration’s push for more pandemic funding.
As world leaders gathered in New York City this week for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, you had to wonder if Biden had a point. This year’s opening week is the first one to be held fully in person since the pandemic began. The event was all virtual in 2020 and hybrid in 2021.
There was even a tangible sign this week of a new, post-pandemic era: The traditional gridlock that plagues midtown Manhattan during “UNGA week” was back. The topics of discussion had changed, too: Just last year, covid-19 dominated the conversation, with Biden himself hosting a concurrent summit on global vaccination efforts and committing to a goal of immunizing 70 percent of the world’s 8 billion people within the next year.
But this year, things are different, although not necessarily in a positive way. The international community has moved on from the pandemic — but to war and general chaos.
The Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces continues to cause economic and political shock waves, with Moscow this week calling for a “partial” mobilization and making thinly veiled nuclear threats. A violent crackdown in Iran has cast doubt over any diplomatic progress that could be made on Tehran’s nuclear weapons.
Other conflicts have flared in Ethiopia and along the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan, while Washington and Beijing remain at odds. Meanwhile, the global economy is on the brink, and the death this month of Queen Elizabeth II diverted much of the world’s attention.
The pandemic was all but forgotten at the United Nations — and last year’s pledges had gone unfulfilled. When Biden spoke at the General Assembly last year, he said the words “covid-19” 10 times and “pandemic” six times. This year, he focused instead on countering Russia and other authoritarian states, saying “covid-19” just three times and mentioning “pandemic” only once.
Biden missed his own stated target on global vaccination. Advocacy groups said that less than 1 in 5 people of low-income countries was fully vaccinated, while 56 percent of people in lower-middle income countries had reached the target.
“Our failure to deploy vaccines equitably is a resounding global failure — a failure that cost lives and livelihoods, and resulted in waves of variants which made the pandemic longer for all of us,” Tom Hart, president of the ONE Campaign, said in a statement.
There were also some less-heralded developments. Most notably, the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria on Wednesday raised $14.25 billion at its Seventh Replenishment Conference. The event, hosted by Biden, brought the country closer to its $18 billion target for the next three years.
There have also been discussions about preparing for the next pandemic. On Thursday, I moderated a panel co-sponsored by a South Africa-based mRNA technology and training hub, backed by the World Health Organization. The hub aims to start a global network of vaccine research sites in developing nations.
The idea is that the hub would train other sites, or “spokes,” so that when the world faces its next pandemic, richer names won’t be able to hoard the vaccine supply. In this effort, there have been some early signs of success.
The South African company Afrigen Biologics, which works at the hub, is already testing a potential coronavirus vaccine. It also started work on a tuberculosis shot.
“We have been approached by the leading scientists in the HIV community,” Petro Terblanch, executive director of Afrigen, said at the conference, which was co-organized by the advocacy group Public Citizen.
HIV is one of the many diseases experts hope could be eradicated with an mRNA vaccine.
Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the WHO, admitted that the hubs may fail to make a significant impact on the covid-19 pandemic — Afrigen’s vaccine could still be years away from hitting the market — but that the system needed to be put in place now for the future. “The only way to solve this problem is to take a longer-term view, not a quick fix view,” she said.
The problem is that governments around the world are not always good at taking the longer view. Britain was long a leader in health funding, but stunned onlookers on Wednesday when officials failed to pledge any new money at Biden’s Global Fund replenishment event. Under new Prime Minister Liz Truss, Britain has significantly pulled back its aid budgets.
David Lammy, a member of the British opposition, noted that the country had pledged at least $2.6 billion in military aid to Ukraine in 2023. Countries that needed aid would surely be aware of that too, he told the Guardian. “In the past, I have said Britain’s foreign policy has become too transactional, but this isn’t even transactional. This is just ill-thought-out,” he said.
Meanwhile, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol caused a minor diplomatic scandal when he spoke an undiplomatic truth at the Biden event: the U.S. president’s pledge of $6 billion in funding for AIDs, tuberculosis and malaria may not get past Congress.
“It would be so humiliating for Biden if these idiots don’t pass it in Congress,” Yoon was overheard telling a group of aides.
But even without Congress as an obstacle, the United States has yet to provide funding for the mRNA hubs project, which has the potential to make a major impact with a modest price tag. Instead, it supports the hub through technical assistance.
The hub in South Africa expects it will need about $100 million in funding over the next four years, with just $67 million raised so far.
For the project, that $34 million shortfall is a lot of money, but it’s also about half of the cost of an F-35 fighter jet. And it’s only a fraction of the billions of military aid the United States has pledged to Ukraine this year.