President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that the United States is doubling its purchase of Pfizer’s COVID-19 shots to share with the world to one billion doses as he embraces the goal of vaccinating 70 per cent of the global population within the next year.

The stepped-up U.S. commitment marked the cornerstone of the global vaccination summit Biden convened virtually on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, where he encouraged well-off nations to do more to get the coronavirus under control.

It comes as world leaders, aid groups and global health organizations have grown increasingly vocal about the slow pace of global vaccinations and the inequity of access to shots between residents of wealthier and poorer nations.

“Global health security until now has failed, to the tune of 4.5 million lives and counting,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres. “We have effective vaccines against COVID-19. We can end the pandemic. And that is why I have been appealing for a global vaccination plan and I hope this summit is a step in that direction.”

The U.S. purchase of another 500 million shots brings the total U.S. vaccination commitment to more than 1.1 billion doses through 2022.

At least 160 million shots supplied by the U.S. have been distributed to more than 100 countries, representing more donations than the rest of the world combined. The remaining American doses will be distributed over the coming year.

“To beat the pandemic here, we need to beat it everywhere,” Biden said.

With the new commitments, he added, “for every one shot we’ve administered to date in America, we have now committed to do three shots to the rest of the world.”

Biden and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield participate in the virtual COVID-19 summit with other world leaders on Wednesday. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The latest purchase reflects only a fraction of what will be necessary to meet a goal of vaccinating 70 per cent of the global population — and 70 per cent of the citizens of each nation — by next September’s UN meeting. It’s a target pushed by global aid groups that Biden will throw his weight behind.

Biden is pressing other countries to do more in their vaccine-sharing plans.

“We need other high-income countries to deliver on their own ambitious vaccine donations and pledges,” Biden said. He called on wealthy countries to commit to donating — rather than selling — the shots to poorer nations, and to provide them “with no political strings attached.”

Where Canada stands

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised in the Liberal election platform that Canada will donate “at least” 200 million doses of vaccine through COVAX, the UN-backed program to ship vaccines to all countries, by the end of next year.

A spokesperson said Wednesday there were no new specific commitments made by Trudeau at Biden’s vaccine summit.

Canadian officials are currently in talks with suppliers and other countries that need vaccines, working on plans to donate Canada’s excess doses of Pfizer and Moderna.

Canada has already promised to donate 40 million doses it purchased but cannot use from AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and the COVAX vaccine-sharing alliance. To date, it has shipped just 82,000 doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine directly to Trinidad and Tobago.

Meanwhile, the European Union committed to donating 500 million doses — a slight increase from its earlier announced plans — according to a joint statement from the bloc and the U.S. “We call for nations that are able to vaccinate their populations to double their dose-sharing commitments or to make meaningful contributions to vaccine readiness,” the statement said.

They also committed to working with the U.S. to bolster global vaccine supply.

Biden, in his remarks, said the U.S. would also increase its funding to global aid groups that are administering shots.

The American response has come under criticism for being too modest, particularly as the administration advocates for providing booster shots to tens of millions of Americans before vulnerable people in poorer nations have received even a first dose.

“We have observed failures of multilateralism to respond in an equitable, co-ordinated way to the most acute moments. The existing gaps between nations with regard to the vaccination process are unheard of,” Colombian President Ivan Duque said Tuesday at the United Nations.

Wide range in vaccination rates

More than 5.9 billion COVID-19 doses have been administered globally over the past year, representing about 43 per cent of the global population. But there are vast disparities in distribution, with many lower-income nations struggling to vaccinate even the most vulnerable share of their populations, and some yet to exceed two per cent to three per cent vaccination rates.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said the “triumph” of speedy vaccine development was offset by political “failure” that produced inequitable distribution.

“In science, co-operation prevailed; in politics, individualism. In science, shared information reigned; in politics, reserve. In science, teamwork predominated; in politics, isolated effort,” Pinera said.

The World Health Organization says only 15 per cent of promised donations of vaccines — from rich countries that have access to large quantities of them — have been delivered. The UN health agency has said it wants countries to fulfil their dose-sharing pledges “immediately” and make shots available for programs that benefit poor countries and Africa in particular.

WATCH | From July: WHO’s Tedros urges rich nations to share vaccines: 

Prioritize 1st COVID-19 vaccine doses globally over booster shots: WHO

The World Health Organization says getting first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to everyone in the world needs to be be a higher priority than getting booster shots to people in some wealthy countries. 2:01

The World Health Organization and aid groups have warned that the persistent inequities risk extending the global pandemic, and that could lead to new and more dangerous variants. The delta variant raging across the U.S. has proved to be more transmissible than the original strain, though the existing vaccines have been effective at preventing nearly all serious illness and death.

COVAX has struggled with production issues, supply shortages and a near-cornering of the market for vaccines by wealthy nations.

WHO has urged companies that produce vaccines to prioritize COVAX and make public their supply schedules. It also has appealed to wealthy countries to avoid broad rollouts of booster shots so doses can be made available to health-care workers and vulnerable people in the developing world. Such calls have largely gone ignored.

Missed targets

COVAX has missed nearly all of its vaccine-sharing targets. Its managers also have lowered their ambitions to ship vaccines by the end of this year, from an original target of some two billion doses worldwide to hopes for 1.4 billion now. Even that mark could be missed.

As of Tuesday, COVAX had shipped more than 296 million doses to 141 countries.

“Today’s summit was full of speeches but tragically lacking in action,” said Oxfam America’s president and CEO Abby Maxman. “While we commend President Biden for rallying world leaders to commit to vaccinate 70 per cent of the world by this time next year, we have yet to see an effective plan to meet this goal.

“President Biden and leaders of rich countries should listen to what leaders from developing countries are asking for: the rights and the recipe to make their own vaccine doses.”

Earlier this year, Biden broke with European allies to embrace waivers to intellectual property rights for the vaccines, but there was no movement Wednesday toward the necessary global consensus on the issue required under World Trade Organization rules.

While some non-governmental organizations have called those waivers vital to boosting global production of the shots, U.S. officials concede it is not the most constricting factor in the inequitable vaccine distribution — and some privately doubt the waivers for the highly complex shots would lead to enhanced production.

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