Biden behind on global vaccine sharing, cites local hurdles

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Joe Biden

President Joe Biden speaks at the Green Road Community Center in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, June 24, 2021. Biden is in North Carolina to meet with frontline workers and volunteers and speak about the importance of getting vaccinated. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden came up well short on his goal of delivering 80 million doses of coronavirus vaccine to the rest of the world by the end of June as a host of logistical and regulatory hurdles slowed the pace of U.S. vaccine diplomacy.

Although the Biden administration has announced that about 50 countries and entities will receive a share of the excess COVID-19 vaccine doses, the U.S. has shipped fewer than 24 million doses to 10 recipient countries, according to an Associated Press tally. The White House says more will be sent in the coming days and stresses that Biden has done everything in his power to meet the commitment.

It’s not for lack of doses. All the American shots are ready to ship, the White House said. Rather, it’s taking more time than anticipated to sort through a complex web of legal requirements, health codes, customs clearances, cold-storage chains, language barriers and delivery programs. Complicating matters even further is that no two shipments are alike.

One country requires an act of its Cabinet to approve the vaccine donation, others require inspectors to conduct their own safety checks on the U.S. doses, and still others have yet to develop critical aspects of their vaccine distribution plans to ensure the doses can reach people’s arms before they spoil.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to share internal arrangements, said that as of Wednesday, all intended recipient countries had received formal U.S. offers of a specific number and type of vaccine, and all legal and logistical hurdles on the U.S. side had been cleared.

The White House declined to specify which nations were grappling with which local hurdles, saying it is working with recipient nations on an individual basis to remove obstacles to delivery.

“What we’ve found to be the biggest challenge is not actually the supply — we have plenty of doses to share with the world — but this is a Herculean logistical challenge,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week.

It took months for the U.S. to get its domestic vaccination program running at full throttle, and officials noted that Biden only shifted the focus of the nation’s COVID-19 response toward the global vaccination campaign less than two months ago.

Biden announced the 80 million target on May 17, saying, “This will be more vaccines than any country has actually shared to date — five times more than any other country — more than Russia and China.” Even while missing his goal, Biden has made the U.S. the largest global vaccine donor, delivering more doses than either Russia or China, who have at times sought to leverage their vaccines for geopolitical gain.

The 80 million doses are meant as a down payment on a far larger plan to purchase and donate 500 million vaccine doses for the world over the next year. That plan, relying on a purchase contract from Pfizer that will begin delivering doses in August, remains on track, officials said.

Last week the White House broadly outlined its plans for all 80 million doses, but it is not publicly releasing a list of how many and of what type of vaccines each recipient will get until the doses are on the way.

The U.S. recipients to date are Colombia (2.5 million Johnson & Johnson doses), Bangladesh (2.5 million Moderna), Peru (2 million Pfizer), Pakistan (2.5 million Moderna), Honduras (1.5 million Moderna), Brazil (3 million J&J), South Korea (1 million J&J), Taiwan (2.5 million Moderna), Canada (1 million Moderna, 1.5 million AstraZeneca) and Mexico (1.35 million J&J, 2.5 million AstraZeneca). All told, it’s enough vaccine to fully protect 15.9 million people.

Biden initially committed to providing other nations with all 60 million U.S.-produced doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has yet to be authorized for use in the U.S. but is widely approved around the world. The AstraZeneca doses have been held up for export by a two-month safety review by the Food and Drug Administration.

Given declining domestic demand for vaccine doses, the Biden administration expects to be able to meet the full 80 million commitment without the AstraZeneca doses, but rather from existing federal stockpiles of Pfizer, Moderna and J&J vaccines.

The U.S.-approved shots — particularly the mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna — appear to be more effective than other available vaccines against the virus, especially emerging strains of the virus that are more contagious and harmful, like the delta variant first identified in India.

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