The Biden administration is still not sending U.S. vaccines overseas, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday that it is moving closer toward what global health experts say is a critical step to ending the COVID-19 pandemic.
"As we get more confident in vaccine supply here at home, we are exploring options to share with other countries more going forward. We believe that we will be in position to do much more on this front," Blinken said at the State Department, announcing a new senior official to lead the agency's global pandemic response.
Gayle Smith, former President Barack Obama's head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, will serve as Blinken's coordinator for global COVID response and health security.
Blinken acknowledged the criticism that the U.S. should do more to distribute vaccines, as it has only "loaned" 4 million doses to Canada and Mexico so far. But he defended the focus on vaccinating Americans first as "the right call. We serve the American people first and foremost."
In fact, he said, the soaring number of U.S. cases has made vaccinating Americans first critical for the rest of the world. The U.S. has recorded more COVID cases than any other country and more deaths.
"Stopping the spread here has been urgently needed for our people -- and for the world. We have a duty to other countries to get the virus under control here in the United States," said the top U.S. diplomat.
Without providing a timeline for sharing any doses, Blinken acknowledged the "growing desperation" in some countries, adding, "We hear you, and I promise we're moving as fast as possible."
While the U.S. has shared vaccines only with its two closest neighbors, Russia, China and India have moved ahead to share millions of doses around the world -- an attempt to win favor using their stockpiles of vaccines that's been dubbed "vaccine diplomacy."
So far, China has inoculated about 5% of its population, although it is preparing to shift gears and focus on domestic vaccinations.
As if to distinguish a forthcoming U.S. effort, Blinken said the U.S. will "maintain high standards for the vaccines that we help to bring to others -- only distributing those proven to be safe and effective." That could be a swipe at China's Sinovac vaccine, which some studies suggest has a lower efficacy rate, but got emergency approval from Chinese authorities last July, months before any U.S. vaccine.
U.S. doses will also come without any strings attached, Blinken said.
"We won't trade shots in arms for political favors," he said. "This is about saving lives."
Blinken also emphasized the importance of global health security, including "sustainable financing" and transparency -- in another possible swipe at Beijing -- saying, "We'll keep pushing for a complete and transparent investigation into the origins of this epidemic -- to learn what happened, so it doesn't happen again."
World Health Organization and Chinese teams released their long-awaited joint report last week about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic that has been met with criticism about China's role in its publication. The U.S. joined 13 other countries in raising "shared concerns" because the WHO team was "significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples."
To help steer U.S. policy on all this, Blinken announced he's named Smith as his COVID coordinator. After leading USAID, Smith has most recently served as president and CEO of the ONE Campaign, the aid organization co-founded by U2 lead singer Bono.
In brief remarks, Smith said, "American leadership is desperately needed and I'm extremely confident we can rise to the occasion. I'm honored to be here."
Blinken echoed that sentiment, saying, "The world has never done anything quite like this before. This is a moment that calls for American leadership."
In a statement, Bono also praised Smith, saying, "Extraordinary times demand extraordinary leaders, and Gayle-Force Smith is just that. I can't think of a better person to drive the U.S. effort to chase this virus off the face of the planet."
"She has no tolerance for injustice, she will hustle and hassle the powers that be, wherever they be. She will fight this virus as she did HIV and Ebola, like her own life depends on it," Bono added.