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

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As the Biden administration faces increased pressure to address global vaccine inequity, USAID administrator Samantha Power announced a plan Monday for the United States to spend an additional $400 million to help increase vaccine access internationally. The move came days after Vanity Fair revealed a $2.5 billion plan to thwart Omicron-like variants has been stalled inside the Biden administration. We speak with reporter Katherine Eban, who broke the story and says vaccines are piling up in countries that lack the health infrastructure to distribute them quickly. “The problem is shifting from not enough doses to not enough support on the ground to administer doses.” She says the Biden administration has “good-faith” goals to reduce vaccine inequity, but “they have not gone and asked Congress for money in part because they’re facing a narrow Senate majority.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. 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 has been stalled inside the Biden administration.

We’re joined right now by Katherine Eban. She wrote the Vanity Fair piece.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Katherine. So, lay out what’s happening. We are talking about a global pandemic.

KATHERINE EBAN: Yeah. Good to be back with you, Amy.

So, 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’s 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. You know, 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.

So, 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 vaccinate — to help vaccinate 70% of the world by September of 2022. So 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 that plan had been circulating inside the government since around October, but nothing was done. And as one source explained to me, they have not gone and asked Congress for money, in part because they’re facing a narrow Senate majority. They’re 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: And, Katherine, what is the problem? I mean, is it that the Biden administration has too small a team at the top coordinating this stuff, or is it 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, you know, 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’s not enough. And that has been recognized.

So, 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. And 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.”

And, in fact, that is exactly what has happened, which is we’re having a pileup of vaccines in countries that are not getting into arms. So, 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’re seeing, that the problem is shifting from not enough doses to not enough support on the ground to administer doses. And, in fact, the plan I obtained says that specifically, that that is where the problem is now shifting.

So, you know, it is one thing to make pledges. It is one thing to donate vaccines. That is all good, but it is not enough. And, 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.” So, basically, what we’re seeing is what experts have been warning about all along, which is there’s not really a plan to get these doses into arms.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And 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: You know, 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 interest 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 of 2022. And this internal document, this plan that I obtained, basically says, in order to do that, we have to massively surge up the effort. So, 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’s a tremendous lag in administering these vaccines.

AMY GOODMAN: And, 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: Well, you know, the Biden administration says that they’re 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’re dropping 2 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. And according to my sources, that has not been happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Katherine Eban, we want to thank you very much for being with us, investigative journalist and author, contributing editor at Vanity Fair. We’ll 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.

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