US to get COVID-19 vaccines 1st because it's 'epicenter' of pandemic, biggest investor: Official

Some humanitarian groups have accused wealthy nations of "hoarding" vaccines.

December 10, 2020, 5:00 AM

The Trump administration is defending its efforts to vaccinate Americans first, pointing to the significant U.S. taxpayer investment in developing the coronavirus vaccines at record speed.

"Help is coming. We will be providing vaccines around the world," a State Department official told ABC News Wednesday. "But at the end of the day, these products were paid for and often produced by Americans, and they should have the right to have access to them first."

But notably, the official also offered another key reason: "The United States is the epicenter of the pandemic. We are the country that has the most cases, the highest percentage of COVID rates. It is very important for us to make sure that Americans receive this vaccine and receive it first," the official said in an interview.

Under an executive order President Donald Trump signed Tuesday, the U.S. will begin providing vaccines overseas once the domestic demand has been satisfied.

The decision has been met by criticism in some corners, particularly the People's Vaccine Allowance, a collective including Amnesty International, Frontline AIDS, Global Justice Now and Oxfam, that on Wednesday accused wealthy nations of "hoarding" the vaccine and warned that nine out of 10 people in poor countries won't be vaccinated until 2022.

PHOTO: A mock vial of the Pfizer vaccine for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is shown during a staff vaccine training session at UW Health in Madison, Wisconsin, U.S., Dec. 8, 2020.
A mock vial of the Pfizer vaccine for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is shown during a staff vaccine training session at UW Health in Madison, Wisconsin, U.S., Dec. 8, 2020.
John Maniaci/uw Health/via Reuters

"The hoarding of vaccines actively undermines global efforts to ensure that everyone, everywhere can be protected from COVID-19," said Steve Cockburn of Amnesty. "Instead, by working with others to share knowledge and scale up supply, they could help bring an end to the global COVID-19 crisis."

But Trump made clear Tuesday that his priority is the American people, signing an order that said in part, "It is the policy of the United States to ensure Americans have priority access to free, safe, and effective COVID-19 vaccines."

While the details were slim during his signing ceremony, the State Department official said the plan, months in the works, is coming together and will be led by a committee of State Department, USAID and Department of Health and Human Services employees.

"We want to make sure that we quickly are able to pivot and to save lives and restart the global economy," they said.

In particular, the administration expects American demand to be met around the middle of 2021, because despite concerns about shortages now, the U.S. has in total ordered 800 million doses from six manufacturers, they said.

"While there is certainly a shortage today ... by the late spring timeframe or early summer, we will be in a position where we think that every American who wants the vaccine will have been able to have had a vaccine," they said.

For now, the administration doesn't have a list of countries or plans on how to prioritize the deployment of the vaccines, the official said. But they plan on donating excess vaccines to low- and middle-income countries through GAVI, the global vaccine alliance, while also selling vaccines to other partner countries, either with U.S. facilitation or at times at subsidized rates, they said.

What the administration is not planning on doing is using the Defense Production Act to require pharmaceutical companies to break their contracts with other countries and provide their vaccines to the U.S. first, according to the official.

"We don't want to do a DPA action like we had to do with ventilators," they said, although they left open the possibility of its use for other reasons in vaccine development. "That's certainly not what we're talking about."

Critics, including humanitarian organizations, have said the U.S. and other wealthy countries need to begin distributing vaccines globally at the same time. The RAND Corporation said in a report earlier this year that the global economy would lose $1.2 trillion a year in GDP terms if there's "unequal allocation of vaccines," while the Gates Foundation said that twice as many lives globally could be saved if vaccines were distributed equally.

The official rejected that idea, pointing out the United States' "long track record of being generous" and mentioning the $1.6 billion it invested in COVID-19 assistance worldwide.

Most other developed nations will take "the same posture," the official added.

With just weeks until Trump's term ends, the administration hopes this plan will last.

The official praised Joe Biden's administration as "filled with smart people who've done this for a long time." They said, "I hope that they adopt the whole thing or, if not, most of it because it makes sense. It makes sense for both the American people and for our commitments overseas."

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