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 One

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 month.

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 deaths.

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.

But first we begin with economist Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, president of the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Jeffrey Sachs is also the author of several books, including The Ages of Globalization. He led the WHO’s Commission on Macroeconomics and Health from 2000 to 2001.

Jeffrey Sachs, welcome to Democracy Now!

JEFFREY SACHS: Thanks a lot, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Start off by responding to Biden’s plan to immediately send out 25 million doses, then hit 80 million by the end of the month.

JEFFREY SACHS: Well, we need a comprehensive strategy. What’s happened is, the United States is reaching the target levels of immunization within our own country, but the amount of production is massive, so there is vaccine available for mass distribution around the world. The same is happening in Europe, in the U.K., in China.

We need a global plan. We can estimate that there are hundreds of millions of doses being produced each month now, but there is no plan for getting them to the people in need. You quoted a study that said it would take — it could take 57 years. I would put it a different way. We could get comprehensive immunization around the world certainly within the next 12 months. Certainly. Let me underscore that. And it could be even faster, given the scale of production.

But we do not have an allocation plan. We don’t even have transparency right now. We have the companies that have been approved. How much are they producing per month? What contracts do they have? Where are these doses going right now? How should they be allocated across the world for prioritization? This is basic stuff, but the United States is not sitting down with China, with Russia, with the European Union, with the United Kingdom, with the WHO as the overall orchestrator, to make sure that there is a just, inclusive, rapid, comprehensive coverage. It’s unbelievable, actually, that we don’t have this sorted out. It’s a matter of a spreadsheet. And it’s a matter of disclosure and transparency by companies. And it’s a matter of the United States talking with China, not just yelling at China. And this is what’s missing right now to this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what would it actually require?

JEFFREY SACHS: Ah, it would not require much. It would require some Zoom meetings of senior officials in China, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, together with WHO, together with representatives of the producing companies — Moderna, Pfizer, BioNTech, Sinopharm, Sinovac. How many doses are you producing per month right now? What are your contractual relations, which may have to be overridden because the public sector has paid for all of this?

We don’t have that clarity. When I make rough calculations with my colleagues on this, we have enough production globally to get comprehensive immunization within the next 12 months. But then, when I ask WHO or U.S. officials, they say, “Well, we don’t really know exactly where Pfizer is selling.” Are you kidding? We’re in a global emergency of unprecedented dimension. How can you not know precisely what is happening? And why is there no plan to this date?

AMY GOODMAN: And can you explain what the —

JEFFREY SACHS: That’s — that’s the amazing situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what the most efficient way to do this — not necessarily to send doses from the United States, but to make a deal, like Biden made with Merck and Johnson & Johnson? Merck didn’t develop the vaccine; Johnson & Johnson/Janssen did. But Merck then also helps to reproduce that vaccine, to manufacture that vaccine. The idea that there are many pharmaceutical companies in the world that didn’t develop vaccines, but if they’re given the recipe and the means of — it’s also a lot of hardware — they can help to manufacture these millions and millions of doses that are needed.

JEFFREY SACHS: That is correct. That’s why the IP waiver is, in a way, a no-brainer right now, period. But I would say, even in addition to that, there is a production flow that is underway that is sufficient to immunize the adult population worldwide comprehensively.

The mistake, Amy, is to think that this is about markets, that this is about the secret deals that Pfizer-BioNTech can make with high-paying customers, that there can be no transparency because that’s a trade secret. This is mind-boggling. Governments have paid for all of this.

We need a global distribution system for worldwide safety, not only given the fact that people are dying in surge countries, but given the fact that variants are developing in surge countries and spreading worldwide. This requires a systematic political mobilization. But in the middle of this, we have a crazy kind of Cold War that we’re not speaking with China about a coordinated strategy. We don’t have the main players at the table. And these days you don’t even need a table; you need a Zoom. And that’s all that is needed, actually, to get this done.

Financing can also be arranged. These companies also should abide by normal pricing. It’s not that this should be — the word is “free market.” It’s insane. This is not even a market. It’s like auctioning seats on a lifeboat, the way they’re doing it right now.

In other words, the most basic standards of management logic are not being applied right now, even though this is the greatest global emergency in modern history. Why is Jake Sullivan announcing just what the United States is going to do, without transparency, for July, for August, for September? And why is he saying it not in the context of a globally agreed plan, but of the United States announcing some number? Beats me, because when I look at this — and I’m involved in it day to day — what is needed is a strategy over six months. Countries need to know when doses are going to arrive. They need to have supply chains locally ready. They need to train. They need to have the capacity to get the vaccines into operation.

So, this is an operational challenge. It is not some market mania, which is the way that it has been treated ’til now, as if companies have the right and the prerogative to do what they want, sign what secret contracts they want, without any disclosure. That’s the situation we’re in right now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the People’s Vaccine Alliance reports profits from COVID vaccines have helped at least nine people become billionaires during the pandemic, with a combined wealth of over $19 billion, more than enough to cover the cost of fully vaccinating all people in low-income countries.

In Part Two Amy Goodman interviews Fatima Hassan, founder and Director of the Health Justice Initiative in South Africa, speaking from Cape Town, also in    dialogue with Jeffrey Sachs.  The World Health Organization has issued a warning of a sharp increase in COVID-19 in many parts of Africa, cases rising in at least 14 countries.

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*American Award-winning investigative journalist and syndicated columnist, author and host/executive producer of Democracy Now!