Joe Biden convenes a virtual coronavirus summit of world leaders on Wednesday under pressure to close the vaccination gap with poorer nations.
The meeting on the margins of the UN general assembly offers the US president a chance to exercise soft power and gain an edge on rivals such as China in “vaccine diplomacy”.
But Biden could also face tough questions over why he is promoting a third vaccine dose for US citizens at a moment when less than 2% of people in developing countries have had their first shot.
Ahead of the summit, a group of Democratic senators including Tina Smith, Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren wrote to Biden urging him to make firm commitments to expand global Covid-19 vaccine access and lead the world out of the pandemic.
“According to experts, 11bn Covid-19 vaccine doses are needed to vaccinate 70% of the global population and significantly reduce the spread of the virus,” the senators, joined by two representatives, wrote in the letter. “So far, 5.82bn doses have been administered globally, but less than 2% of the population living in low-income countries received even one dose.
“Clearly, there is an inequitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccine doses, and it is getting worse. Despite promises and pledges from some wealthy countries to donate nearly 1bn doses to the global effort, only 15% of those donations have actually been distributed.”
A draft document of targets for Wednesday’s meeting, obtained by the Washington Post, shows that the US will push for at least 70% of the global population to be fully vaccinated by the time of the next UN general assembly in 2022.
Other targets include ensuring oxygen is readily accessible for inpatient health facilities in all regions and ensuring a minimum of one per 1,000 people are tested each week before the end of 2021 or test positivity rates are less than 5% a week in all countries.
In June Biden announced that the US would buy and donate half a billion Pfizer vaccines to 92 low- and lower-middle-income countries and the African Union through Covax, the global vaccine initiative. The US is now reportedly seeking to buy an additional half billion Pfizer doses for donation.
In his first address to the UN general assembly in New York on Tuesday, Biden said: “Already, the United States has put more than $15bn toward the global Covid response. We’ve shipped more than 160m doses of Covid-19 vaccine to other countries. This includes 130m doses from our own supply and the first tranches of the half a billion doses of Pfizer vaccine we purchased to donate through Covax.”
The president will announce “additional commitments” at Wednesday’s Covid-19 summit, he promised.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) urged the US and other high income countries to immediately redistribute their excess vaccine doses to low- and middle-income countries via the Covax facility and regional procurement mechanisms.
MSF also said the US government must demand that Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna share Covid-19 mRNA vaccine technology and knowhow so other manufacturers can make additional mRNA vaccines and meet the global needs.
Dr Maria Guevara, MSF international medical secretary, said: “The longer the world is divided into Covid-19 haves and have-nots, the longer the pandemic will drag on, the more variants can develop, and the more deaths and suffering will occur.”