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Biden Announces A New Goal To Vaccinate 70% Of The World's Population Within A Year

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden gathered world leaders today for a virtual summit on COVID-19. The goal - figure out how to vaccinate 70% of the world's population against COVID by this time next year. To kick off that effort, Biden announced that the U.S. will be buying 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to donate to lower-income countries on top of 600 million vaccine doses the U.S. already committed.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: To beat the pandemic here, we need to beat it everywhere. And I made and I'm keeping the promise that America will become the arsenal of vaccines as we were the arsenal for democracy during World War II.

FADEL: But Biden stressed that the other wealthy countries also need to step up, raising questions about how effective the plan will prove. Joining us now is NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman. Hi, Nurith.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So Nurith, it seems fitting that the COVID-19 summit was virtual, so less of a gathering, more of an online meeting?

AIZENMAN: Yes, as with so many meetings in these pandemic times. And this summit included not just heads of state, but representatives of private companies, non-governmental groups, world health officials. But it was scheduled to coincide with the annual gathering of the United Nations General Assembly that drew world leaders to New York City in person and virtually. And the ones who attended this summit included India's Narendra Modi, Germany's Angela Merkel, the United Kingdom's Boris Johnson - though we didn't actually hear their remarks because the summit was almost entirely closed to the public.

FADEL: So what's been the reaction, especially in lower-income countries that have had trouble getting ahold of vaccines?

AIZENMAN: Yeah, it's hard to overstate how unequal the distribution has been. To date, rich countries have gotten 80% of the world's vaccine supply.

FADEL: Wow.

AIZENMAN: In low-income countries, less than 10% of people have been vaccinated. In Africa, it's less than 4%. So when I talk to people from these places and to advocates for more equity, there's huge relief that the issue is finally getting this level of attention. And there's optimism that the U.S. leadership in particular will keep the pressure on. But there's also dismay that earlier vaccination goals and pledges didn't pan out. And there's, frankly, a lot of doubt about whether this latest effort will deliver.

FADEL: So walk us through what's behind that skepticism.

AIZENMAN: Well, health advocates estimate that with this latest announcement by the president, the U.S. will be donating about one-fifth of the total number of vaccines that are needed to meet that 70% vaccinated goal. Now, that is huge, but what about the rest of the doses that will be needed? Previous attempts by the U.S. to cajole other rich countries to donate haven't been that successful.

Also, a lot of low-income countries say they're not just looking for donations. They have the money to buy a big share of vaccines on their own or through COVAX, the global vaccine purchasing program. The trouble is, the vaccine manufacturers are telling them that the doses coming online now are already committed to rich countries. So advocates for these poorer countries say it's time to put them in front of the line. It's a timing issue.

FADEL: OK. So then I have to ask you about boosters. How do the current discussions by U.S. authorities on whether to give booster shots to some Americans play into this?

AIZENMAN: Right. The plan unveiled at the summit also includes a major push to fund and facilitate the expansion of vaccine production. But earlier this week, the chief scientist at the World Health Organization, Soumya Swaminathan, said that for the moment, there is not enough supply to simultaneously provide boosters to rich countries and new shots to poor ones. We can have a listen.

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SOUMYA SWAMINATHAN: It's a myth when people say we can do both. Unfortunately, that's not true because we are in a zero-sum game.

AIZENMAN: Right. She says vaccines used in one place may necessarily need to be taken away from some other place.

FADEL: NPR's Nurith Aizenman, thank you so much.

AIZENMAN: Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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