CAPE TOWN, South Africa – Health officials and experts around the world on Thursday welcomed the US plan to donate another 500 million COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries, but celebrations came with hesitation.
For example, when exactly will these vaccines reach regions that have lagged behind in the global race and are feeling the pressure now with new deadly waves of virus infections? And how many other rich nations will follow the US lead to fill this huge need?
The Biden government’s pledge to buy and share Pfizer vaccines was “clearly a cause for celebration,” said Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, especially at a time when virus infections are on the rise. increasing aggressively on the continent, and there are still countries that have not administered a single dose.
“It’s definitely going to be a big help,” said Nkengasong, though he added that he was eager to understand the exact timeline for photos heading to his continent.
Two hundred million doses – enough to fully protect 100 million people – will be provided this year, with the rest donated in the first half of 2022, according to the White House. The US will work with the US-backed COVAX alliance to carry out the attempts. Some noted that because Pfizer’s vaccines require extremely cold storage, they pose an extra logistical challenge for countries with struggling health systems and poor infrastructure.
US President Joe Biden is expected to address the plan later on Thursday in a speech on the eve of the Group of Seven summit in Britain.
This summit could also provide a crucial indication of whether and to what extent the other elite club nations are willing to follow the US in sharing vaccines amid widespread criticism that the richest countries have fallen terribly far behind, despite the grandiose promises of justice when vaccines were being developed.
Inequalities in vaccine supply across the world have become alarmingly pronounced in recent months as richer countries rushed to vaccinate large swaths of their populations while poorer nations struggled to secure doses. Inequality is not just a matter of justice: there is also growing concern about new virus variants emerging from areas with consistently high circulation of COVID-19.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in The Times of London that it was now time for rich countries to “accept their responsibilities” and “vaccinate the world”, although his own country has yet to announce any solid plans to share vaccines with countries in need.
France has been insisting on the importance of helping Africa, in particular, with vaccines since last year, and President Emmanuel Macron said he brought 100,000 doses of vaccine with him on a trip to Rwanda last month. Macron has promised that France will donate 30 million doses through COVAX by the end of the year, with half a million by mid-June.
Promises made by rich nations, some of which have too many vaccines, are often criticized as too little or too late – or both.
“While Biden’s plan is welcome, it is a small piece of the puzzle and does not help the countries that are fighting right now,” said FIFA Rahman, who is a civil society representative at a World Health Organization body focused on increase access to COVID-19 vaccines, among other issues.
She cited Uganda, an East African nation, as an example, saying that the country’s intensive care units are already full and there are only a small number of vaccines left.
“This is just one example of a country that needs vaccines now,” said Rahman. “At the end of this year it’s too late and it costs a lot of lives.”
There are many examples of dire need around the world, such as Haiti, at the gates of America, and which is still waiting for its first shipment of vaccines six months after some rich countries started their programs.
“It is precisely the actions of the G-7 governments, among others, that have led to the serious global inequalities we see in access to COVID-19 medical tools now,” said Médecins Sans Frontières.
As countries around the world struggled to gain access to vaccines, unable to close their own deals with companies like Pfizer, many turned to China, which exported 350 million doses of its vaccines to dozens of countries, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
While Chinese vaccines faced scrutiny because of the lack of transparency in sharing clinical trial data, many countries were eager to get anything.
China, which has been vying for influence with the US in the field of “vaccine diplomacy,” responded to the US plan through Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, who said China has always supported the use of vaccines. as a “global public good”.
The shots promised by the Biden government will go to 92 low-income countries and the African Union in the next few years. Pfizer said the doses are part of an earlier pledge, with its partner BioNTech, to deliver 2 billion doses to developing countries in the next 18 months.
The White House had announced plans to share 80 million doses globally by the end of June, most through COVAX.
The additional donation of vaccines from Pfizer is crucial because the global disparity in vaccination has become a multidimensional threat: a human catastrophe, a $5 trillion economic loss to advanced economies and a contributor to the generation of mutated viruses, said Jerome Kim, the head of the International Vaccine Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to making vaccines available to developing countries.
Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of the South Korean Agency for Disease Control and Prevention, said the success of Biden’s vaccine sharing plan would depend primarily on how quickly vaccines could be produced and shipped to countries in need. The White House said all doses will be made in the US.
Some experts said that donations alone would not be enough to close the huge gaps in supplies and called on qualified companies around the world to manufacture vaccines without intellectual property restrictions.
The US has expressed support for lifting IP protections on vaccines – and some other countries have agreed it should be explored – but in an indication of the disjointed G-7 response, Germany repeated its opposition to a IP waiver on Thursday .
“We don’t think an exemption is helpful or that it’s really the problem,” said a senior German official, who told reporters on condition of anonymity under department rules. “And nothing has changed about that.”
Tong-Hyung reported from Seoul, South Korea. Associated Press writers Huizhong Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, Edna Tarigan in Jakarta, Indonesia, Ken Moritsugu in Beijing, Maria Cheng in London, Jill Lawless in Falmouth, England, Angela Charlton in Paris and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.