President Biden under pressure to ratchet up vaccine aid

WASHINGTON (thehill): Lawmakers are pushing for billions in federal funding to boost global COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing in Democrats’ coming $3.5 trillion package, arguing that the Biden administration needs to do more to fight the pandemic worldwide and prevent dangerous new variants from forming.

A group of 116 Democratic lawmakers, including more than half of the House Democratic caucus, wrote to congressional leaders and President Biden last month, calling on them to back $34 billion to increase global manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines and to help distribute the vaccines around the world.

The push comes as health experts increasingly call on the administration to do more to vaccinate the world, as many countries have still only vaccinated a small percentage of their population, providing fertile ground for new variants to develop that could threaten everyone, including Americans.

But backers of the push in Congress say they have yet to receive firm commitments on the issue from either congressional leadership or the White House.

“No one’s made any commitments to me about it,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), one of the leaders of the letter, saying he had spoken to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and “everybody I’ve spoken to understands the need.”

Henry Connelly, a Pelosi spokesman, said: “We continue to pursue ways to increase funding for global vaccine distribution and manufacture, building on the nearly $8 billion in funds for GAVI, the Global Vaccine Alliance, and the Global Fund secured by the Speaker in earlier covid relief bills.”

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), another leader of the push, said backers had not yet received a “formal response” from the White House.

“I think we have more work to do,” Krishnamoorthi said. “We have to persuade people that this is a top priority.”

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients did announce on Thursday a roughly $3 billion investment in the vaccine manufacturing supply chain in the United States, which he said would also help boost supply for the world.

“We can and we will do even more,” Zients said.

The Biden administration already plans to donate 500 million COVID-19 vaccine doses across this year and next, with more than 130 million doses already delivered.

But lawmakers and experts say much more is needed, including building up manufacturing capacity to produce more doses in lower-income countries.

Malinowksi says the administration has to “step up” its efforts.

“They announced the donation of 500 million doses,” he said. “While that sounds like a very large number, in fact it’s missing a zero.”

Global health leaders have consistently raised the alarm about inequitable access to vaccine supply between richer and poorer countries.

The World Health Organization has set a goal of vaccinating the most vulnerable 10 percent of every country’s population by the end of September. But the WHO said Thursday that 42 of Africa’s 54 countries are set to miss that goal given the current pace of vaccinations. Only nine African countries have vaccinated 10 percent of their populations so far.

More than 200 health experts and civil society groups in August wrote to Biden calling for a “wartime footing” to ramp up COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing for the world.

The letter urged the president to come up with a plan to reach capacity for 8 billion doses of vaccine per year within six months, and called for a plan to be announced within one month.

Signers of the letter included Tom Frieden, the former Obama-era director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Paul Farmer, co-founder of the group Partners in Health.

“Supply is being controlled by a very small number of countries,” said Krishna Udayakumar, director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center. “It’s not being distributed in an equitable way.”

“Part of why we need to invest more in manufacturing is to create a globally distributed model of manufacturing,” he said, granting more access to low and middle-income countries.

Lawmakers leading the push say the full $34 billion in new funding might not be needed if there are already funds available that have been allocated, but said they do not have a clear accounting of how much is currently available.

A report from PrEP4All, an HIV advocacy group also working on the COVID-19 response, found that the Biden administration had spent just $12 million out of $16 billion provided in the American Rescue Plan earlier this year for manufacturing and procurement of vaccines, drugs and equipment.

A group of experts also called on world leaders this week to convene a global summit during this month’s U.N. General Assembly and commit to actions including making 7 billion vaccine doses available by the end of the year.

 “We’re seeing a lot of piecemeal efforts,” said Udayakumar, one of the experts making that call.  “None of this is going to get solved unless it’s taken on in some comprehensive way.”

Krishnamoorthi said funding is needed in Congress’s coming package to “end” the pandemic rather to simply “manage” it.

If funding is not included, he said, it “dooms us to managing and muddling our way through this pandemic until we get to the next Greek letter variant.”