Even as the delta variant is causing higher COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations across the United States, President Joe Biden continued his push to help get people around the world vaccinated, highlighting in remarks Tuesday that the U.S. has already shipped 110 million doses abroad.
"As of today, United States has shipped over 110 million doses of U.S. vaccines to 65 countries that are among the hardest hit in the world," Biden said.
The push to share vaccines globally is an effort to halt the rise of any future variants of the virus, which global health experts warn could potentially compromise vaccine immunity. Biden pointed out during his remarks that it is in "our national interest" to share vaccines with other countries, pointing out that the highly transmissible delta variant came from abroad.
"I've been very clear on it, that we need to attack this virus globally, not just at home. Because it's in America's self-interest to do so. The virus knows no boundaries. You can't build a wall high enough to keep it out," Biden said. "There's no wall high enough or ocean wide enough to keep us safe from ... COVID-19 in other countries."
Biden announced that the first of 500 million Pfizer vaccine doses the administration ordered for global distribution will begin shipping at the end of August. Of those doses, 200 million are expected to ship in 2021, with the remaining 300 million to follow in 2022.
Biden announced the 500 million-dose commitment at the G-7 summit in the United Kingdom in June, as part of an effort to drum up additional contributions from allies.
"We're gonna help lead the world out of this pandemic, working alongside our global partners," Biden said in remarks ahead of the summit. He added that the U.S. had a "responsibility" and a "humanitarian obligation to save as many lives as we can."
During his remarks Tuesday, Biden said the U.S needs "to prove that democracies can deliver," and that the U.S. can do that by leading efforts to manage the pandemic domestically and helping other nations with their own efforts against the virus.
Biden touted another vaccine milestone during his remarks -- that the U.S. has already shipped more than 110 million doses to more than 60 countries around the world, mostly through COVAX, the World Health Organization's vaccine-sharing initiative. The U.S. has shared more doses than every other country combined, according to U.N. data.
In April, Biden first committed to sharing 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which were purchased by the U.S. but never received FDA emergency use authorization. Biden also pledged in May to share another 20 million doses of the three available vaccines in the U.S., totaling a pledge of 80 million doses. Biden highlighted Tuesday that U.S. contributions worldwide have already outpaced that 80 million-dose pledge.
Asked by a reporter whether his administration was planning to send more vaccines to the world, Biden sidestepped the question, though he conceded that there is great need globally for more doses.
"There is a need for several billion doses around the world," Biden said. "We have committed to over half a billion doses and we're trying to provide for more and provide for the capacity of countries like India to be able to produce the vaccine themselves."
Various non-governmental agencies, including the Center for Strategic International Studies, the Duke University Global Health Institute and the Center for Global Development penned an open letter to the Biden administration Tuesday, calling on the U.S. to ramp up its efforts.
"The US and G7 allies have taken important but modest steps to close the global vaccine gap, including by accelerating large-scale production and delivery of high-quality vaccines, increasing financial support to COVAX, and committing to share roughly 900 million doses over the next year (including 580 million from the US). But these actions fall far short of the true scale and urgency required," the letter says.
"Getting 110 million doses out is really helpful, but in the scale that we need to find a way to get 10 billion plus doses out, it's not even in the order of magnitude to make a difference," said Dr. Krishna Udayakumar, director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center. "The U.S. has done more than any other country so far, but that's more an indictment of the whole response, as opposed to the U.S. standing out in any positive way."
Udayakumar warned that while the focus continues to be on worldwide vaccine supply, distribution challenges will soon come to the fore.
"We have under-invested on the ground in ensuring vaccines can turn into vaccinations. My biggest concern is we're going to see vaccines sitting in freezers around the world." he said.