(CN) — With China and Russia scoring political points as they ship their coronavirus vaccines around the world, the Biden administration is joining European leaders in pushing to get Western-made vaccines out to the rest of the world too.
In a clear change from the Trump administration, top U.S. medical officials on Monday joined a World Health Organization news briefing and talked about the need to get vaccines distributed around the world.
“An outbreak in any part of the world is an outbreak for the entire world, so we need over the next month to years to make a major commitment to not only continue with the science but to make sure we implement the distribution of this vaccine so that we would get a global control of this historic pandemic,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to Biden. He spoke at the news briefing via a video link. Also present at the briefing was Dr. Nancy Messonier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fauci said that while it is “clear that each country must take care of their own,” there is a need to “realize that is this a global pandemic requiring a global response.”
This was the first time since the pandemic started that U.S. government officials appeared at a WHO briefing, a sign that the new Biden administration hopes to take a leading role in combatting the global fight against the virus.
Last spring, when the pandemic was exploding, the Trump administration accused the WHO of helping the Chinese regime cover up the severity of its outbreak. President Donald Trump then withdrew American membership from the United Nations agency. Until now, the U.S. has largely been missing in action when it comes to global efforts to tackle the pandemic.
On Friday, the Group of 7 nations – the U.S., Canada, Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy – pledged to spend $7.5 billion on the WHO's initiative to roll out vaccines globally. The U.S. pledged to spend $4 billion with half of that coming soon. Also, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to donate millions of their nations' doses to the effort.
All of this comes as concern grows in the West that China and Russia are winning allies by distributing their low-priced vaccines around the globe, filling a vacuum left by Western governments that have been focused until now on vaccinating their own populations.
Chinese media reports that about 43 million doses of China's Sinopharm vaccine have been administered globally. It has sent vaccine shipments to Asia, South America and Africa, but also to Hungary and Serbia in Europe. Similarly, Russia's vaccine, Sputnik V, is going into the arms of people in many parts of the world too.
On Monday, at a separate WHO news conference, German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier talked about the geopolitical dimension to distributing vaccines globally.
“The pandemic constitutes a geopolitical moment which will have enormous consequences for our own future, the future after the pandemic,” he said, speaking through a translator. “If we refuse to grant the necessary solidarity, we must not be surprised if other countries come in to fill this vacuum by delivering earlier what is required and using that for their own purposes.”
He added that the West's failure to help the world fight the pandemic would lessen trust in its ability to deal with “other global challenges, such as manmade climate change.”
So far, the vast majority of Western-made vaccines have been purchased by rich countries. The WHO is urging richer nations to help inoculate the most vulnerable people in each country, such as health workers and the elderly, to prevent unnecessary deaths but also to stop the virus from spreading out of control and developing into new strains resistant to the crop of vaccines now being administered.
“They could be the breeding grounds for new variants and even the vaccines we used may be out of use, meaning we could be back to square one,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, on Monday.
Tedros said that committing billions of dollars to the global vaccine program isn't enough and that vaccine manufacturers should put profits aside and share their patents globally to ramp up the production of vaccines.
“It's a pandemic that has taken the whole world hostage and the manufacturers too have social responsibility to stop it,” Tedros said. “Governments, manufacturers, all stakeholders should do everything to contribute for the world's fastest recovery.”
He added, “For now, and for the rest of the year, vaccines will be a limited resource. We must use them as strategically as we can.”
On Monday, Fauci said he could not say whether the U.S. is willing to donate a portion of its vaccine doses to the global effort.
He said major drug makers in the past shared information to make treatments against HIV affordable for people in the developing world and he said the same could be done for Covid-19 vaccines.
“It did not have a deleterious effect on the companies, who continued to do well financially and continued to make investments in research,” Fauci said. “I am not sure what the model will be, but I think we do have some precedent that you can make arrangements with companies that would allow them to both maintain a considerable amount of profit at the same time that areas of the world that don't have resources can share in a way that would be life saving for literally millions of people.”
Mariangela Simao, a WHO assistant director-general, welcomed such information sharing but recalled that it took years for HIV drugs to become cheap enough for people in poorer countries.
“We cannot afford to take 10 years for medicines or vaccines to reach the developing world this time,” Simao said. “It took too long with HIV and too many people died unnecessarily.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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