White House Insiders Oppose Biden Plan To “Share” Vaccines With India, Others
Even as unused COVID-19 vaccines pile up and a growing number of US states are scaling back orders of new vaccines, some top West Wing staffers are quietly pushing back against President Biden’s decision to “share” unwanted AstraZeneca jabs with India and other countries badly in need of more jabs.
According to three senior officials with knowledge of the situation, senior officials in the West Wing, and National Security Council have repeatedly rebuffed requests from leaders of health agencies to send more American vaccines abroad. While President Biden has promised to give jabs to Mexico and other nations, so far, this has mostly been talk. Those backing exports cited internal projections showing the US will soon have tens of millions of vaccines to spare. But those arguing against sharing were unmoved.
Politico pointed out that the resistance to exporting more vaccines raises troubling questions about the administration’s confidence in the domestic vaccine pipeline, which is largely reliant on just two companies – Moderna and Pfizer – as J&J and AstraZeneca struggle with reports of rare but deadly blood clots in a tiny number of patients with low blood platelet counts.
It also raises questions about the west’s decision to prioritize protection of IP rights for vaccinemakers over creating an “open vaccine” that could be manufactured by any nation around the world. Bill Gates, the biggest advocate for IP protections, has insisted that developing nations would be better off waiting to buy supplies of jabs from developed nations who own the IP. The Biden Administration is considering whether to back a proposal at the WTO to waive IP protections for vaccine technology, which could save hundreds of thousands of lives at the expense of big pharma’s profits.
After a mix-up at a factory in Baltimore ruined some 15MM doses of J&J’s jab, observers can’t help but wonder if there’s another shoe about to drop.
“The question is, what if there is a manufacturing problem or a contamination or a barrier, and then all of a sudden we don’t have enough vaccines,” said one senior administration official. “There’s people … pushing to do it and do it now. Then there are people who are saying … we’ll deal with it, but not right now, let’s just wait a little bit.”
Some inside the administration, meanwhile, are struggling to gauge whether there’s enough support for shipping vaccines abroad before the end of the year.
A White House spokesperson responded to a series of questions on the matter by pointing to coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients’ statement Tuesday that the U.S.’ “strong portfolio” of existing vaccines made it possible for the administration to share AstraZeneca doses with other countries.
The Biden administration is getting sizable, regular shipments of vaccine from Moderna and Pfizer, which between them have agreed to supply enough shots for 300 million people. The third authorized U.S. vaccine maker, Johnson & Johnson, had initially promised to make 100 million doses by June, reinforcing the U.S. supply with a one-shot option that is relatively easy to store and could be deployed to hard-to-reach groups.
As US demand slows while India’s pandemic reaches unprecedented levels of mortality, some are arguing that continuing to hoard jabs is simply immoral on Washington’s part.
“There’s no reason for the U.S. to sit on doses and have hundreds of millions of doses on the shelf over the summer,” said Krishna Udayakumar, director of Duke’s Global Health Innovation Center. “If and when more doses are needed in the fall and into the winter, the manufacturing capacity is going to ramp up pretty significantly.”
Others argued that Washington must either back a waiver on vaccine IP at the WTO, or hand over more of its vaccines. Refusing to do either would be cruel.
“This is no longer a conversation about protecting American lives versus protecting Indian lives, like America has plenty of vaccines,” said Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. “Americans will have plenty of vaccines for a long time. The absolute minimum we should be doing is helping places like this institute make a lot more.”
The US is currently entertaining bids from multiple countries for Covid-19 assistance and have received specific requests for doses, according to a senior official with direct knowledge of and another individual familiar with the situation. A team led by Gayle Smith, the State Department’s global Covid-19 coordinator, is still debating how to identify which countries are most in need of vaccines.