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Biden pledges up to $4 billion to help get poorer countries vaccinated against COVID-19

Biden signals diplomacy shift in new speech
Biden signals diplomacy shift in first address on world stage 01:49

In a reversal of his predecessor's U.S.-centric approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic, President Biden is ramping up pressure on America's wealthiest allies Friday to get COVID-19 vaccine doses into poor and developing countries. Mr. Biden told his fellow G7 leaders during a virtual summit that the U.S. would contribute up to $4 billion to COVAX, the World Health Organization-backed initiative aimed at ensuring equitable access to vaccines around the world.

A senior administration official said on Thursday that Mr. Biden's announcement was aimed at least in part at leveraging U.S. partners around the world to bolster their own support for the initiative.  

President Biden was committing $2 billion to COVAX up front — which is $2 billion more than the U.S. had offered under his predecessor — and then another $2 billion over the coming two years, provided other nations fulfill their own commitments to the program. Officials said on Thursday that the money was earmarked by Congress in the December 2020 spending bill, so it would have no impact on domestic vaccination efforts in the U.S.

The senior official said the White House recognized that ensuring health security everywhere around the world was in the direct interest of the U.S., too.

Experts warn of another possible coronavirus surge as winter storms delay vaccination efforts 06:01

That's a point that global health experts have been stressing for months: If rich nations focus only on protecting their own populations from the disease it will be more than a moral failure — it will allow the virus to mutate unchecked, and that could come back to haunt even well-vaccinated countries.

Why worry about the world?

United Nations officials have repeatedly urged rich countries not to leave poorer ones to fend for themselves, and vaccine makers not to base their vaccine distribution on profit margins.

In an article published earlier this month, Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS, the U.N. agency created in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic that tore across the world in the 1980s, decried, "a vaccine apartheid that is only serving the interests of powerful and profitable pharmaceutical corporations while costing each one of us the quickest and least harmful exit route from this crisis."

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had already chastised vaccine makers for targeting locations where "profits are highest."

Those arguments were largely on moral grounds, but Byanyima also warned that pandemic narcissism could put rich nations' own populations — even if vaccinated — at risk of new COVID-19 outbreaks.

Doctor on COVID-19 variants' potential spread, impact on vaccines 03:33

"The longer the virus is allowed to continue in a context of patchy immunity, the greater the chance of mutations that could render the vaccines we have and the vaccines some people in rich countries have already received, less effective or ineffective," she said.

Byanyima also cited research carried out for the International Chamber of Commerce, which suggests that delaying poor countries access to vaccines will cost money, to the tune of, "an estimated $9 trillion, with nearly half of this absorbed in wealthy countries like the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom."

Real world evidence

As CBS News' Debora Patta reported this week, there is already real-world evidence of the risks of leaving COVID-19 to spread and mutate in virus "reservoirs" around the world.

South Africa's government, facing a serious wave of infections and delayed for a number of reasons, only started its mass-vaccination program a week ago. By that time, the now-well-known variant first discovered in that country had spread like wildfire through its cities. It's been documented in dozens of other countries, too, including more than 150 cases in the United States.

Health experts have said the variant, like the one discovered in southern England, is far more easily transmitted between people, but vaccine studies have shown the South African variant also appears to render the current vaccines at least somewhat less effective.

Most pharmaceutical companies have said that while they may need to add booster shots, their vaccines should still work well enough to prevent serious illness with all the known variants.

The real risk is the strains we don't know about yet, or that may emerge in the future in areas where vaccines aren't rolled out efficiently.

"The virus is mutating, we are going to get more dangerous forms of this virus and we will be running behind it slowly as people die," Byanyima told CBS News this week. "We need to move faster by increasing production and vaccinating the world as quickly as possible."

Hope for "vaccine equity"

The current goal of COVAX is to get 2 billion vaccine doses distributed by the end of this year, fairly, to the countries most in need.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a press conference, July 3, 2020 at WHO headquarters in Geneva. FABRICE COFFRINI/Getty

In a statement released on Friday, WHO Director-General Tedros noted the new pledges of support from the Biden administration and other nations as a "growing movement behind vaccine equity."

"I welcome that world leaders are stepping up to the challenge by making new commitments to effectively end this pandemic by sharing doses and increasing funds to COVAX," he said, adding that, "to prevent virus variants from undermining our health technologies and hampering an already sluggish global economic recovery, it is critical that leaders continue to step up to ensure that we end this pandemic as quickly as possible."

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