August 15, 2022

U.S. Vowed to Help Prevent New Variants by Closing Global Vaccine Gap, But Plan’s Funding Is Stalled

6 min read

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González as we now look more at how the Biden administration is addressing the global pandemic. On Monday, USAID administrator Samantha Power announced a plan for the United States to spend an additional $400 million to help increase vaccine access internationally. Power made the announcement just days after Vanity Fair revealed A $2.5 billion Plan to Thwart Omicron-Like Variants Is Stalled Inside the Biden Administration. We are joined now by Katherine Eban, who wrote the Vanity Fair piece. Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Katherine. Lay out what is happening. We are talking about a global pandemic.
KATHERINE EBAN: Good to be back with you, Amy. The Biden administration has pledged to be an arsenal of vaccines for the entire world, with the full recognition that if we leave swaths of the developing world unvaccinated, they become essentially factories for new variants like omicron. So there is an absolute sense of urgency among public health experts and within the Biden administration.
However, what happened was even despite a gigantic pledge of vaccines, 1.1 billion doses—that is what the Biden administration has pledged—starting around this summer I learned through my reporting the health officials inside the Biden administration began to realize that they were having uptake problems in far-flung countries. They were dropping off crates of vaccines on airport tarmacs and lo and behold, without more logistical support, without boots on the ground helping to administer those vaccines, it was really almost impossible in some countries to turn those donated doses into shots in arms.
I obtained an internal plan that USAID had put together which basically said we have to really surge this response if we want to meet Biden’s pledge to help vaccinate 70% of the world by September 2022. It proposed essentially a $10 billion global plan of which $2.5 billion would be the U.S. share to surge up teams that could help with logistics in numerous countries around the world. What I learned is that plan had been circulating inside the government since around October but nothing was done. As one source explained it to me, they have not gone and asked Congress for money in part because they’re facing a narrow Senate majority. They are focused on infrastructure and Build Back Better and they have not actually requested the funds. So the plan has been sitting there and as the plan has been sitting there, we are seeing this omicron variant develop out of Southern Africa, most likely, and this is what all the public health experts have been warning about precisely.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What is the problem? Is it that the Biden administration has too small a team at the top coordinating this stuff or is that they haven’t really figured out all of the logistical problems involved? Particularly for instance, I think your piece notes the situation even with syringes, which are obviously critical in terms of administrating vaccines. A syringe shortage in various countries?
KATHERINE EBAN: Right. The problem really throughout this has been they are absolutely talking the talk. They are even making good-faith pledges. They are shipping out vaccines. They like to say they are doing more than all other countries combined. That is true, but the reality is if you want to get to a certain goal—which they do—it is not enough. That has been recognized.
I reported actually weeks earlier that 1.1 billion doses pledged, the majority of that is Pfizer vaccine, and lo and behold, you need a specialized syringe to administer the Pfizer vaccine. You need what’s called a low dead space syringe. That is in shortage all over the world. Experts were warning the Biden administration—I obtained documentation—they were warning them, “If you do not donate these syringes along with the doses, you are going to have vaccines sitting idle.”
In fact, that is exactly what has happened, which is we are having a pileup of vaccines in countries that are not getting into arms. South Africa even told the world, “We don’t need more doses. We have 20 million surplus doses. We just haven’t been able to administer them.” So that is really what we are seeing, that the problem is shifting from not enough doses to not enough support on the ground to administer doses. In fact, the plan I obtained says that specifically, that that is where the problem is now shifting.
So it is one thing to make pledges. It is one thing to donate vaccines. That is all good, but it is not enough. In fact, the African Union released a statement with the World Health Organization just the other day saying, “Thanks, everybody, for all of your pledges of doses but we don’t want any more vaccine donations sent ad hoc with short expiration dates and no syringes. If you want to help us, help us logistically and on the ground in a coordinated fashion.” Basically, what we’re seeing is what experts have been warning about all along, which is there is not really a plan to get these doses into arms.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: How does the U.S. effort compare to that of other countries, especially in this area, not so much of delivery of the vaccines, but from a tarmac into arms? For instance, the effort that China has been promoting around the world?
KATHERINE EBAN: I don’t really see other countries doing anything more or better than the United States. I don’t think that there is any sort of one model of a country that is doing the most to vaccinate the world. But what is absolutely clear is that it is in all of our best interests to get to a goal that has been set by the World Health Organization, that has been embraced by the Biden administration, which is to get to 70% global vaccination by September 2022. This internal document, this plan that I obtained, basically says in order to do that, we have to massively surge up the effort. We are not there. If you look at Africa, there are only two countries, I believe it’s Morocco and Tunisia, which are going to reach a 40% vaccination rate by the end of this year. So there is a tremendous lag in administering these vaccines.
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, this is about ending the pandemic globally. Let me ask you one final question around that issue. Is this effort that has this tiny group within the White House coordinating with USAID, what do you think needs to happen, as we wrap now?
KATHERINE EBAN: The Biden administration says that they are engaged in an all-of-government effort, but my reporting shows they had a very small team within the White House sort of micromanaging the rollout of these vaccines. So you would have ambassadors from various countries calling up the State Department and saying, “Well, wait a second, I just heard that you are dropping two million doses on us this afternoon and there is no coordination.” So there is a sense that policy is being driven at the very top within the White House but the implementation is really supposed to come in a coordinated way from federal agencies. According to my sources, that has not been happening.
AMY GOODMAN: Katherine Eban, thank you very much for being with us, investigative journalist and author, contributing editor at Vanity Fair. We will link to your piece, A $2.5 billion Plan to Thwart Omicron-Like Variants Is Stalled Inside the Biden Administration. She is also author of the book Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom and Dangerous Doses: A True Story of Cops, Counterfeiters, and the Contamination of America’s Drug Supply.