US Finally Offers to Send Vaccines Abroad, But Lack of Global Plan Leaves Poorer Nations in Crisis
By Amy Goodman* – Democracy Now!
Amy Goodman interviews
Jeffrey Sachs and Fatima Hassan, Part two
Context and interview to Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the
Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and president of the
U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
The Biden administration on Thursday announced that the U.S.
will donate 25 million surplus doses of COVID-19 vaccines to developing
countries, pledging to donate a total of 80 million doses by July.
Economist Jeffrey Sachs says rich countries have enough
production capacity to speed up vaccine distribution and immunize the whole
world within the next year. “There’s massive supply, but there’s no plan for
allocation,” he says.
We also speak with South African health justice activist
Fatima Hassan, who says the global vaccine imbalance comes down to political
will. “Even now countries are still sitting around a table and talking and
having long conversations instead of figuring out an urgent way to ramp up
manufacturing, scale up production and get as many doses to as many people as
possible all over the world.”
AMY GOODMAN: The Biden administration announced plans to
send 25 million COVID vaccine doses to dozens of countries in Latin America,
Africa and Asia, where COVID cases continue to surge. The majority of the
vaccines will be distributed through COVAX, a program backed by the World
Health Organization. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the
administration plans to send a total of 80 million doses by the end of the
JAKE SULLIVAN: We’re sharing them in a wide range of
countries within Latin America and the Caribbean, South and Southeast Asia, and
across Africa in coordination with the African Union. This includes
prioritizing our neighbors here in our hemisphere, including countries like Guatemala
and Colombia, Peru and Ecuador and many others.
AMY GOODMAN: The Biden administration’s announcement comes
just before the president heads to Britain to take part in a G7 summit. Many
public health experts say the U.S. plan falls far short of what’s needed to
address the global crisis, which has killed at least 3.7 million people, though
public health researchers say the true toll is likely approaching 8 million
According to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, more than a
million COVID deaths have occurred in the past four months, since the leaders
of the G7 failed to collectively back a waiver of intellectual property rules
for COVID vaccines. The United States now backs the waiver, but other G7
nations and the pharmaceutical industry continue to oppose the waiver.
Based on current vaccination rates, the People’s Vaccine
Alliance estimates it could take 57 years to fully vaccinate everyone in
low-income nations. The New York Times reports
85% of vaccine doses have gone to people in high- and middle-income countries.
On Thursday, the World Health Organization warned, quote, “The threat of a
third wave in Africa is real and rising.” Cases are rising in at least 14
African nations over the past two weeks.
In moment, we’ll go to Cape Town to speak with Fatima
Hassan, a South African human rights lawyer and HIV/AIDS and social justice
activist, founder and director of Health Justice Initiative.
We just had in headlines the World Health Organization
warning of a sharp increase in COVID-19 in many parts of Africa, cases rising
in at least 14 countries. I want to bring in Fatima Hassen, to talk about what
this means, the fact that it is so difficult to get vaccines to the developing
world, that it would take something like — what was the estimate? Fifty-seven
FATIMA HASSAN: Yeah. Thanks. And I think, you know, the
previous speaker is right: We could be addressing this in the next few months,
if there was the political will to ensure that many of these front-runner
vaccine companies would actually share the knowledge and share the vaccine
know-how. In my own country, we’re still waiting for supplies from Johnson
& Johnson because of an issue that has arisen in the U.S., and we’re
waiting for the FDA clearance. That has halted half of our vaccination program,
because we are totally reliant on supplies from two pharmaceutical companies
who refuse to issue multiple voluntary licenses, who refuse to allow others to
manufacture the vaccines, to share the knowledge and to allow others to be able
to be part of the supply chain system.
So, the situation that we have around the number that it
will take, the number of years that it will take to vaccinate everybody in the
Global South is one of artificial, self-created scarcity. There aren’t enough
supplies, because there is knowledge hoarding. And where there are supplies,
they’re not coming fast enough. In my own country — it’s June 2021 — we’ve
only vaccinated just over 1 million people, half of whom who were part of a
study trial. So that tells you there’s something fundamentally wrong with the
supply chain system, which is very tenuous in the world at the moment. And
despite the WHO saying, you know, in the first half of 2021, let’s at least use
available supplies for all healthcare workers around the world or all people
over 80, that has not happened. So, you know, I agree there isn’t a
prioritization. There’s definitely a scarcity of supplies. But that scarcity can
be addressed, and it is self-created.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain how it could work in South Africa.
What would it require of the wealthiest countries, like the United States? I
mean, you have the G7 meeting today. That’s the Group of 7: Canada, France, Germany,
Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. What do you want to see
come out of that meeting? What are your demands?
FATIMA HASSAN: So, all of those countries, except the U.S.,
are actually blocking what we call the TRIPS waiver. (An exception to the Trade-Related
Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). The U.S. has indicated partial support for the
waiver only in relation to vaccine, not in relation to diagnostic technologies
or not in relation to therapeutics or other kind of interventions that could
actually help us manage the epidemic. For over eight months, the G7 have been
sitting on a proposal for the TRIPS waiver that would allow other manufacturers
around the world, wherever there is untapped capacity, to be able to make versions
of these vaccines so that we can get millions of doses into many different
parts of the world. So they’re blocking that, while their own populations are
quite advanced in terms of vaccination levels. In some parts of the G7 member
states, they’re actually vaccinating younger, healthy people. In my own
country, people who are over 80 are still waiting for an appointment for a
So, it tells you that the G7 could do a lot more. Many of
them have co-invested in some of these vaccines. They actually own the
technology. But they’re really fearful. They are deferential to pharmaceutical
intellectual property interests. And even with the current state that we’re in,
with a number of countries facing a wave three — some may also be facing a
wave four — with the hospitalization data that we’re seeing, the morbidity
figures that we’re seeing, particularly in Africa, even now countries are still
sitting around a table and talking and having long conversations instead of
figuring out an urgent way to ramp up manufacturing, scale up production and
get as many doses to as many people as possible all over the world.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to just share some figures that are
pretty astounding. The People’s Vaccine Alliance made calculations with the
Health Justice Initiative, Oxfam and UNAIDS. They found last month people
living in G7 countries were 77 times more likely to be offered a vaccine than
those living in the world’s poorest countries. Between them, G7 nations were
vaccinating at a rate of 4.6 million people a day in May. Meanwhile, if this
rate continues, everyone living in G7 nations will be fully vaccinated by
January. At the current rate, 63,000 people a day, it would take low-income
countries 57 years. How many millions of people had to die, Jeffrey Sachs —
have to die to make these pharmaceutical drug company billionaires?
JEFFREY SACHS: Let me put it in a somewhat different
perspective, if I might. The United States has now vaccinated more than half of
the population. Sadly, we have vaccine resistance, which is another tragedy.
And I’ll put that aside for the moment. The U.S. has been producing hundreds of
millions of doses per month. That is now available for the rest of the world.
And that’s why this announcement has been made. But there is no plan of
allocation. A similar situation applies in Europe, though Europe is six to
eight weeks lagging the United States. A similar situation applies to the U.K.,
which is also a producing country. China is producing a lot of vaccine now and
getting a lot of coverage within China. What it means is that we’re producing
globally at a rate maybe of immunizing half a billion people a month. That’s
the rate if you add across the companies, roughly. That is plenty of
production. But there’s no plan for allocating these vaccines right now. That
is unbelievable to this moment.
So, I think the production levels are actually high. They
have gone overwhelmingly to the rich countries in the early months, but the
rich countries are saturated, essentially, or becoming saturated with coverage,
because they have reached, or close to reaching, targets. And that means that
this production is available for the world, which needs it urgently, where
people are dying without it.
But countries don’t even know a target date right now. They
have no idea. They’re completely in the dark. Should they wait for COVAX?
Should they go try to sign some agreement with Pfizer at some incredibly
marked-up price? Should they make side deals? Should they accept this one or
that one? Nobody knows, because there’s no system. And I think that that is
largely the fault of the United States and its failure to cooperate
transparently and publicly with China, with Russia, with the European
producers, with India and with the United Kingdom. In other words, there’s
massive supply, but there’s no plan for allocation.
AMY GOODMAN: Final comment, Fatima Hassan, on the issue of
the vaccines and what’s happening in South Africa, what’s happening in Uganda,
what’s happening in different African countries, what people need to know, on
the continent and outside?
FATIMA HASSAN: So, I would say two things. I would slightly
disagree: We don’t think the production levels are sufficient, which is why
we’re having a supply crisis in almost all of Africa, which also explains why
less than 3% of people in Africa have actually received supplies and have actually
And COVAX is obviously not the solution, even if the U.S.
puts in a trickle of 20 million doses into COVAX. COVAX has indicated that by
the end of 2021, it’s only likely to cover about 27 to 30% of vulnerable
populations in low-income countries. So, COVAX, I think, is a tremendous
The supplies are not sufficient. We don’t believe production
levels are enough. And we really need to ramp up manufacturing through the
sharing — and urgent sharing — of the vaccine know-how and knowledge. And, you
know, the waiver is just one part of that. There now has to be moves for
governments, particularly the G7 member states, to compel pharmaceutical
companies to share the technology and to transfer the technology, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, is there concern that the U.S. will be
sending, for example, AstraZeneca, when it hasn’t even approved it itself in
the United States? And also, the fact that even Moderna and Pfizer vaccines
only have emergency use authorization; they haven’t been fully approved. Do you
understand the reason for that?
FATIMA HASSAN: So, in relation —
JEFFREY SACHS: Oh, I’m sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to Fatima, and then I’ll end
with Jeffrey Sachs.
FATIMA HASSAN: Sorry, Jeffrey. But in relation to South
Africa, Moderna hasn’t even submitted its regulatory dossier. So we wouldn’t,
for example, be able to take their supplies right now. They refuse to enter
low-income countries. South Africa has taken a decision not to use AstraZeneca.
So, at the moment, you know, like I said in the beginning, we’re reliant on
Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. So the issue of vaccine selection in Africa
is as equally important. And I think Jeffrey is right. Where is the
conversations with Russia and with China? We now know some dossiers from
Sputnik, Sinopharm, Sinovac have been submitted. But there seems to be, in some
parts of the world, a reluctance to use those vaccines and to rely primarily on
vaccines that come from Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. And that, I think, is
going to be our undoing, because certainly don’t have enough supplies of
vaccines to go around the world expeditiously.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Jeffrey?
JEFFREY SACHS: Just to be clear, I agree on the need for
ramping up, but what I’m saying is the reason that Africa has gotten so little,
in part, is that the rich countries used all the production in the beginning.
And that phase is at an end. It was not an appropriate way to do things. It was
the way it was done. Now there is a massive supply that could be brought to
bear, and that is the point that I wanted to make. So it’s not a disagreement
on what to do. It is a point that we have a massive supply coming available,
but without a plan to bring it about.
On the question, should AstraZeneca, should Moderna and
others be used, I would say yes. From everything we know about the clinical
evidence and the practical efficacy, we need to get comprehensive coverage as
rapidly as possible. We are in an unprecedented crisis, but also an
unprecedented situation where vaccines have come online for a new disease in a
record time. Is there some uncertainty? Yes. But does that merit delay? In my
view, absolutely not.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank Fatima Hassan, founder
and Director of the Health Justice Initiative in South Africa, joining us from
Cape Town, and ask Jeffrey Sachs to stay with us after break. I want to ask you
about the G7 finance ministers, expected to agree on support for a global
minimum corporation tax, and also your criticism of President Biden for backing
off of his massive infrastructure plan, what’s being compromised.