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Epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves: “3 Things Biden Can Do Right Now to Stop COVID and Save Lives”

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Six months into the Biden administration, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across the United States and around the world, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant. Meanwhile, as vaccinations stall in the United States, much of the world is still “desperate” for COVID-19 vaccines, says Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves. “We should be exporting vaccines rather than sitting on them and hoarding them,” he says. “If we don’t stop the virus all around the world, we’re not going to stop it anywhere.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at how, six months into the Biden administration, COVID-19 cases are continuing to soar here in the United States and around the world. As the highly contagious Delta variant drives an increase in infections, especially in areas with low vaccination rates, some U.S. cities, like St. Louis, Missouri, and Los Angeles, have reinstated mask mandates indoors and on public transportation for everyone, even vaccinated people. On Sunday, the country’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told CNN the United States is in, quote, “unnecessary predicament.”

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: We’re going in the wrong direction, if you look at the inflection of the curve of new cases and, as you said in the run-in to this interview, that it is among the unvaccinated. And since we have 50% of the country is not fully vaccinated, that’s a problem, particularly when you have a variant like Delta, which has this extraordinary characteristic of being able to spread very efficiently and very easily from person to person.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, a new campaign kicked off Friday that aims to use the Olympic Games to raise awareness that much of the world has yet to see a single vaccine dose, with less than 1% of COVID vaccines now distributed to low-income countries — 0.3%. The People’s Vaccine Alliance and Public Citizen are pushing rich countries to, quote, “Stop Playing Games” and invest in global vaccine manufacturing. This video features people from India, vaccination rate 24%; Zimbabwe, 8%; Colombia, 30%; Philippines, 9%; Liberia, vaccination rate just 2%.

KARUNA: The Olympics slogan appears to be “faster, higher, stronger–together.” If we’re going to go faster, higher, stronger–together, we have to be alive.

LOIS: When I heard that there was a vaccine, I was so hopeful. And I thought, “Wow! This is going to change things for us.” Now people are dying around me.

JUAN: We were watching the news that the U.S. were vaccinating people at this tremendously fast rate, and we were not having like one single vaccine applied here.

JOHN: I’m still waiting to get vaccinated. If you asked me when, I still don’t know.

GEORGE: How can we now play Olympics when there is COVID still raging like hell in Africa?

AMY GOODMAN: The campaign calls on President Biden to launch a $25 billion global vaccine manufacturing program to produce 8 billion doses of mRNA vaccine within a year, enough for more than half the world’s population. On Friday, dozens of members of Congress called for including additional funding in the reconciliation package to produce and distribute COVID-19 vaccines worldwide, saying, quote, “No investment in the fight against COVID-19 is more urgent and cost-effective now than an investment in getting the world vaccinated as quickly as possible.”

For more, we’re joined by Gregg Gonsalves, co-director of the Global Health Justice Partnership and assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. His article for The Nation is headlined “3 Things Biden Can Do Right Now to Stop Covid and Save Lives.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Professor Gonsalves. So, why don’t you just lay those out? Start with what you think is the most important thing, six months into his presidency, President Biden can do.

GREGG GONSALVES: So, a couple of — three things. First is that we need massive scale-up of mRNA vaccines, as the new campaign suggests. We can do that in a couple of different ways, and we need to do them both at the same time. One is to invest in vaccine hubs around the world, like the one in South Africa that the World Health Organization announced a few weeks ago. That’s going to require an investment not just of money, but of time, people, effort, technology transfer for the recipes and all the other sort of technical know-how that’s involved in manufacturing these mRNA vaccines. But we can also produce at home, under the Defense Production Act, and set up a factory here or nearby in Canada, for instance, or in our partner nations in the EU, to scale up closer to home, where companies like Moderna have partners like Lonza, which is in New Hampshire, which could be supported through the Defense Production Act by $10 billion that’s already sitting in the Treasury from the American Rescue Plan Act for instances just like this to scale up mRNA vaccines. There’s been sort of a line from the company executives that “We’re working as fast as we can, and you’ll have all you need in a year or so.” In a year or so with Delta means there’s going to be millions more infected, millions more dead around the world.

Finally, you know, as you said, our vaccination in the United States is not as great as we would like it to be. That means there’s millions of unused doses sitting around the United States, some getting ready to expire. But we should be exporting vaccines rather than sitting on them and hoarding them. You know, we’ve talked about — we just saw last week that the U.S. has suggested we’re going to purchase 200 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine for potential boosting of our own population, when, as you said earlier in this segment, that there’s some countries that have 2% of their population vaccinated. If we don’t stop the virus all around the world, we’re not going to stop it anywhere, as we’ve seen with the emergence of Delta and Alpha and other variants from one nation quickly spreading across the globe and taking over.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dr. Walensky, for example, the head of the CDC, has called the pandemic in the United States now the “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Well over — what? Close to 100% of the people who are dying or hospitalized are unvaccinated. Isn’t the world that writ large? I mean, we see the crisis in the United States for what this means. So, if you could comment on your last point? I’m looking at an article in STAT: “Millions of unused Covid-19 vaccines are set to go to waste as demand dwindles [across] the United States [and] doses likely expire this summer … Several state health departments told STAT they have repeatedly asked the federal government to redistribute their supply to other countries, many of which are facing a third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Officials in Washington have rejected those requests, citing legal and logistical challenges.” They quote the Arkansas Air National Guard, who’s leading the state’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution drive there, a retired colonel saying, “We’re drowning in this stuff.” This is incredible.

GREGG GONSALVES: It’s incredible. Also, you know, two colleagues of mine here at Yale, Saad Omer and Mushfiq Mobarak, have done a study to suggest that there’s great demand for the vaccine — just not in the United States. Low- and middle-income countries are desperate for the vaccines. And the best way to get more people vaccinated is to do it — you’re suggesting, is to get it out of the U.S. and put it in countries that are desperate to get more people vaccinated.

The Biden administration has been full of excuses, right? It can’t do this; it can’t do that. You know, it, gratefully, showed its support for the TRIPS waiver a few months ago, but that was sort of the end of it, right? Promises of this, promises of that. We have a once — we have a one-time chance, right? We don’t get to, like, do this over again in two years, when the virus has spread around the world and there are millions and millions more people infected. We’re on a tight timeline. We need to stop this now.

The U.S. can do this — as Public Citizen’s campaign suggests, $25 billion for 8 billion doses, or even less than that in some of the other sort of analyses I’ve seen, in, for instance, PrEP4All. We can do this in a cost-effective manner and vaccinate the world. You know, I’m an AIDS activist. I remember when President Bush announced President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and everybody said it was impossible to get antiretroviral therapy to low- and middle-income countries. Well, it got done, and now there are millions of people around the world alive today because of that work.

President Biden could be a leader, and this could be his legacy. Right now the legacy is not looking good. He’s the person who let the pandemic rage across the world when he could have done something.

AMY GOODMAN: On Friday, Pfizer said the United States government will purchase 200 million more doses of its coronavirus vaccine. This is White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki responding to the announcement.

PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: I have said from the podium many times that we were like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and we were going to prepare for every contingency. That’s the job of the federal government — right? — to ensure we have maximum flexibility. We don’t know if we’ll need a booster shot. That’s going to be up to the research that’s ongoing with the FDA. That’s not a recommendation that’s currently made. We also don’t know — we also can’t predict what the outcome will be of research on kids under 12. We’re certainly hopeful. And we don’t know which vaccine will be most effective. But we want to have maximum flexibility, so this is an effort to provide us with that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could comment on this and also the whole debate over boosters? You know, I said Pfizer announced the U.S. government would be buying this. Also, Pfizer announced that probably you would need boosters, despite a rare joint CDC-FDA statement saying that in fact is not the case. Who’s running the show here, the pharmaceutical companies in the United States or the Biden administration?

GREGG GONSALVES: Well, if we talk about the history of drug pricing and drug regulation in the United States, we know who runs the show here in the United States: the pharmaceutical lobby. That’s part of the point. The point is, is that the Biden administration is taking its line from industry on this. We may need boosters, for the immunocompromised, for the elderly. You know, we’ve seen some breakthrough infections with Delta, which are concerning.

The point is, is that at this point suggestions like the press secretary is making about potentially needing boosters or potentially needing to vaccinate kids this fall or into the winter amounts to hoarding right now, right? And, you know, everybody complained about President Trump’s sort of “America First” policy. Well, this is a little bit about America First 2.0. The point is, is that there are millions and billions of people around the world that are at dire risk for sickness and death from COVID-19. There are new variants being spawned every day we let the virus mutate and replicate across the world. And so, this whole idea that we’re going to sort of keep, you know, stockpiling vaccines here until we can vaccinate ourselves 10 times over, like some other countries, like Canada, it’s just unseemly, unnecessary and unwise.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain how it would work, and also explain what COVAX is, but, for Africa, for Asia, what it would look like if, well, for example, the TRIPS waiver were granted on intellectual property, forcing the companies — it’s interesting, the main countries who are saying no to a waiver are Germany and England, where two of the major pharmaceutical companies are based that made the vaccines. What would it look like if it was made available, the recipes, to other pharmaceutical companies who haven’t developed the vaccine but have the ability to manufacture it?

GREGG GONSALVES: Well, you know, look, the TRIPS waiver is being negotiated now. It’s going to take some time. The United States put in lots of money, billions of dollars, into the development of the Moderna vaccine. We also own large chunks of the intellectual property and patents on those vaccines. So we don’t need the TRIPS waiver to do a domestic production effort to scale up millions and billions of doses in the United States. We could do it tomorrow, right? We could say we’re going to make an effort to build a new plant or retrofit a plant in the United States or somewhere nearby. We could invoke our intellectual property and patent rights as the American public on those vaccines, use the money that’s in the bank, the $10 billion in the Treasury, to scale up vaccination right now.

At the same time, you know, South Africa is setting up a hub to manufacture COVID vaccines, and probably pandemic vaccines for the long term. There are other companies around the world who could get on board to manufacture mRNA vaccines with appropriate technology transfer.

It’s just the main thing that’s absent at the current moment is political will from the White House. And I don’t know who is advising the president on that, that ignoring the global pandemic is a wise policy move in any way, shape or form. He may think his domestic concerns are a priority, but that is so shortsighted and myopic, that’s putting us in danger, right? Again, we’re not going to vanquish this virus, we’re not going to bring it down to levels that will give us some semblance of normality within the next two to three years, unless we can deal with the global pandemic. And we need the political will to do it. The mechanics of it, you know, we have a federal government that can figure out many different ways of getting this done. They have the tools. They have the resources. They have the power. They have the claims on the mRNA vaccine from Moderna right now, without any sort of — any extraordinary measures to do what’s right right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain these breakthrough infections and how concerned you think people should be in the United States, around the world. In L.A., 20% of the new infections are people who have been fully vaccinated.

GREGG GONSALVES: Well, let’s put it this way. You know, these vaccines are enormously potent at preventing serious disease and death, right? You know, so if you catch SARS-CoV-2, having been vaccinated with mRNA vaccines, you’re likely to have an asymptomatic or mild infection. The point is, is that it’s all about exposure, exposure, exposure, right? You know, these vaccines are not 100% effective. And if you put 10 people in a room who are unvaccinated, shedding the Delta variant, which is highly contagious, as Dr. Fauci mentioned, you’re just putting the vaccines at a distinct disadvantage. The vaccine-acquired immunity that you got is not a brick wall. They’re 95% effective, 91% effective — I can’t remember the exact figures. But that doesn’t mean 100%. And so, you need to be able to protect yourself from being basically awash in a sea of virus, where vaccines can stumble. That being said, the number of vaccinated people who are in hospitals right now is a tiny, tiny proportion of the people hospitalized. Ninety-nine percent of people who are in hospitals right now are unvaccinated individuals in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, Gregg, but, as you said, you were a longtime AIDS activist. We’re talking to you as an epidemiologist at Yale University. But can you talk about the role of activism, for example, for what you think needs to be done for Biden at this point to ensure that people around the world are vaccinated, which would protect, of course, his own country, the United States?

GREGG GONSALVES: So, AIDS activists are back in the game for COVID-19, and many of us who are arguing for access to COVID-19 vaccines and mRNA scale-up are the same people who were fighting for global AIDS treatment access 20 years ago. The point is, this is a political problem right now. It’s not a technological one. It’s not a legal one. It is a political problem. And AIDS activists, people who care about the health of the planet, who care about the health of Americans, need to get to the White House, to get to the officials in Congress who can get to the White House and say, “Get to work.” The point is, we can beat COVID globally if we have the political will to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: Gregg Gonsalves, we want to thank you for being with us, co-director of the Global Health Justice Partnership, assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health. We’ll link to your piece in The Nation, “3 Things Biden Can Do Right Now to Stop Covid and Save Lives.”

Next up, we look at the case of former Air Force analyst Daniel Hale, who blew the whistle on the secret U.S. drone and targeted assassination program. He faces up to 11 years in prison, will be sentenced Tuesday. Stay with us.

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Next story from this daily show

“Committing the Truth”: Whistleblower Daniel Hale to Be Sentenced Tuesday for Drone Program Leaks

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