Health officials and experts greeted U.S. plans to donate 500 million more COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries with both celebration and hesitation Thursday, amid questions over whether the effort would match the scale and urgency required to help poor regions desperate for doses right now.
With inequities in vaccine supplies around the world becoming alarmingly pronounced in recent months — vaccination campaigns in several richer countries have surged ahead while ones in many poorer nations have barely begun — some expressed hope that the pledge would encourage more such promises to fill a gaping need. Others stressed that the doses needed to roll out quickly.
The first 200 million doses will start to arrive in countries in August, the White House and manufacturer Pfizer said, with the rest following in the first half of 2022.
“Saving lives requires shots in arms now. Not at the end of 2021, not in 2022, but now,” said Kate Elder, senior vaccines policy advisor to the Doctors Without Borders organization. She added the donated vaccines “better come in sufficient volumes and urgently.”
The recent staggering surge in cases in India was a searing reminder of how the pandemic can still spiral out of control without vaccines — and health officials say countries in south and southeast Asia, Africa and elsewhere are desperate for shots now.
Some also noted that the Biden administration’s decision to donate Pfizer vaccines meant it was doubtful that the doses would reach the poorest of the poor: Because those vaccines need to be stored in ultra-cold conditions, many low-income countries with limited infrastructure likely won’t be able to take them to their most remote areas.
Those concerns were raised by health experts in Asia, and the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it would advise its countries to use Pfizer in their major cities.
Still, the Biden administration’s promise was “clearly a cause for celebration,” said Dr. John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa CDC, particularly at a time when virus infections are aggressively increasing on the continent of 1.3 billion people, and there are still countries that haven’t administered a single dose.
“Absolutely, it’s going to be a big help,” Nkengasong said, although he added he was eager to understand the exact timeline for the shots hopefully heading to his continent.
The donation of the Pfizer shots is crucial because the global disparity in vaccination has become a multidimensional threat: a human catastrophe, a $5 trillion economic loss for advanced economies, and a contributor to the generation of mutant viruses, said Jerome Kim, the head of the International Vaccine Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to making vaccines available to developing countries.
The U.S. will work with the global COVAX vaccine alliance to deliver the shots. U.S. President Joe Biden was expected to talk about the plan later Thursday in a speech on the eve of the summit of the wealthy Group of Seven democracies in Britain.
That summit might also give a crucial indication of whether and how far other nations in the elite club are willing to follow the U.S on vaccine sharing amid widespread criticism that richer countries have fallen woefully short so far, despite lofty promises of fairness when the vaccines were being developed.
The gaps in vaccine access are clear: The U.S. and Britain have fully vaccinated more than 40% of their populations, according to a global tracker kept by Johns Hopkins University. While countries like Haiti, on America’s doorstep, Burundi and many others have vaccinated 0%.
“So far, 77% of all the vaccines administered have gone into the arms of people in 10 countries,” said COVAX co-chair Jane Halton. “Now that has got to change.”
The inequality is not just a matter of fairness: There is also increasing concern over newer virus variants emerging from areas with consistently high COVID-19 circulation. At least three variants are circulating in Africa, the African CDC said, and driving infections. Even countries like Britain, with high rates of vaccination, have cited variants as an ongoing concern.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in The Times of London newspaper that it was now time for wealthy countries to “shoulder their responsibilities” and “vaccinate the world,” although his own country has yet to send any doses abroad or announce any solid plan to share vaccines. Johnson indicated Britain had millions of doses in surplus stocks.
Germany and France have each promised to donate 30 million doses by the end of the year.
The promises by wealthy nations — which have been accused of hoarding vaccines — have often been criticized as too little or too late, or both.
“While Biden’s plan is welcome, it is a small piece of the puzzle, and it doesn’t help countries that are struggling now,” said Fifa Rahman, who is a civil society representative on a World Health Organization body focused on increasing access to COVID-19 vaccines.
She cited the East African nation of Uganda as a concrete example, saying the country’s intensive care units are already full, and it has only small numbers of vaccines left.
Biden’s announcement is also tangled up in geopolitics, as he hopes to put the U.S. and its allies at the forefront of the global virus fight in the face of a growing supply of Chinese or Russian vaccines to poorer countries.
Many countries turned to China, which has exported 350 million doses of its vaccines to dozens of nations, according to its Foreign Ministry. While those Chinese vaccines have faced scrutiny because of a lack of transparency in sharing clinical trial data, many poorer nations were eager to receive anything at all.
China reacted to the U.S. vaccine plan through Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, who said China has always supported using vaccines as a “global public good.”
The shots promised by the Biden administration will go to 92 lower income countries and the African Union. Pfizer said the doses are part of a previous pledge, with its partner BioNTech, to provide 2 billion doses to developing countries over the next 18 months.
The White House had earlier announced separate plans to share 80 million doses globally by the end of June, most through COVAX.
Some experts said donations alone wouldn’t be enough to close the huge gaps in supplies and called for allowing qualified companies around the world to manufacture vaccines without intellectual property constraints.
The U.S. has expressed support for suspending IP protections on vaccines — and some other countries have agreed it should be explored — but, in an indication of the disjointed response from the wealthy G-7 nations, Germany repeated its opposition to an IP waiver on Thursday.
“We don’t think a waiver is helpful or is actually the problem,” said a senior German official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity in line with department rules. “And nothing has changed about that.”
Kim 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; Geir Moulson in Berlin; and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed.