Groups to Congress: Include $34 Billion for Global Vaccine Production in $3.5 Trillion Budget Plan

“For one one-hundredth of the proposed budget, the U.S. could make and deliver billions of vaccine doses and end this horrific pandemic.”

By Kenny Stancil, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 8-10-2021

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Defense/flickr

A coalition of global health justice organizations on Monday urged Congress to ensure that the $3.5 trillion budget resolution recently introduced by the Senate Democratic Caucus includes $34 billion in funding to ramp up the worldwide manufacturing of Covid-19 vaccines.

In a letter addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) as well as six committee chairs, a half dozen groups—Public Citizen, Health GAP, Oxfam America, Partners in Health, PrEP4All, and RESULTS—called on lawmakers to allocate a tiny fraction of the funding proposed in Democrats’ reconciliation package to accelerate the global vaccination effort and help bring the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to an end. Failing to do so, the groups warned, will only prolong suffering around the globe.

The coalition wrote that since more than 55 civil society organizations first asked President Joe Biden in April to launch a global vaccine manufacturing program to facilitate the production of billions more doses within approximately one year—a request the groups reiterated Monday in a separate letter to the White House—”more than 1.2 million additional people have died because they could not get access to vaccines, bringing the total death toll due to Covid-19 to 4.27 million lives lost.”

“The artificial scarcity of vaccines is devastating low- and middle-income countries, beyond just the needless deaths and disease from Covid-19,” the coalition told Congress, adding:

The World Food Program estimates that 270 million people potentially face life-threatening food shortages this year—compared to 150 million before the pandemic. The number of people on the brink of famine has jumped to 41 million people currently from 34 million last year. The effects of Covid-19 on health systems are projected to increase the death toll from AIDS, TB, and malaria by millions over the coming years—a loss of life that in some settings threatens to be equivalent to the direct impact of Covid-19 itself. UNICEF says more than 600 million children in countries not on academic break are still affected by school closures, and the World Bank has projected a loss of $10 trillion in earnings over time for this generation of students.

Just over 1% of adults in the world’s poorest nations have been at least partially vaccinated against the coronavirus. Even as billions around the world wait to receive their first dose, Pfizer last month sought U.S. authorization for booster shots.

According to a recent Oxfam estimate, it would take many countries in the Global South until nearly 2080 to fully inoculate their populations at the current rate, an injustice that progressives have labeled “vaccine apartheid.”

On the campaign trail, Biden committed to sharing Covid-19 vaccine technology with other countries and not allowing patents to obstruct the mass production of lifesaving doses, calling it “the only humane thing in the world to do.”

The president received praise from progressives in May when he announced that the U.S. would join more than 100 World Trade Organization (WTO) members in backing India and South Africa’s popular proposal to suspend coronavirus-related intellectual property barriers for the duration of the pandemic, which would enable manufacturers in low-income countries to use Big Pharma’s formulas to produce generic vaccines without fear of legal consequences.

Many predicted that U.S. support for a temporary waiver of the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement would prompt other powerful holdouts to follow suit, but a handful of rich countries has continued to side with profiteering multinational drug companies in opposing a vaccine patent waiver. In addition, participation in C-TAP, the World Health Organization’s voluntary technology transfer program, has been virtually nonexistent.

Despite these setbacks, experts at Public Citizen and elsewhere have argued for months that the U.S. government has other tools at its disposal—including the National Institute for Health’s ownership of a key patent for the spike-protein technology used by at least five companies in the development of vaccines—to compel pharmaceutical corporations to stop monopolizing publicly funded knowledge and start cooperating in the global vaccination effort.

As president, Biden has said that “the U.S. will serve as a vaccine arsenal for the world,” the letter states. Public Citizen has estimated that with an investment of just $25 billion—roughly 3% of Biden’s requested Pentagon budget—the U.S. could establish vaccine manufacturing hubs in several regions of the world to produce eight billion doses in about a year. In practice, however, the U.S. has so far donated just over 100 million vaccine doses.

Public health experts have pointed out that the volume of jabs exported is “akin to tossing a bucket of water at a raging inferno,” and progressive critics have stressed that wealthy nations’ charity is no substitute for sharing vaccine recipes and technology with manufacturers in developing countries in order to boost global supply.

“The doses the U.S. has shared abroad amount to one one-hundredth of global need,” Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program, said Monday in a statement. “But for one one-hundredth of the proposed budget, the U.S. could make and deliver billions of vaccine doses and end this horrific pandemic. The significant funding needed is paltry compared to the staggering cost of continued inaction, in lives and livelihoods.”

The coalition applauded the 116 congressional Democrats—led by Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi (Ill.), Tom Malinowski (N.J.), and Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) as well as Sens. Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.)—who sent a letter (pdf) to Biden last week requesting that the reconciliation package include $34 billion to scale up the production of Covid-19 vaccines and advance a more equitable global distribution of doses.

Late last month, 70 lawmakers delivered a similar letter to congressional leaders, in which they called for including the Nullifying Opportunities for Variants to Infect and Decimate (NOVID) Act—a bicameral piece of legislation introduced in June by Krishnamoorthi, Jayapal, Merkley, and Warren—in the reconciliation package.

According to the coalition, the NOVID Act’s proposal to invest $34 billion to improve vaccine production and distribution is essential to overcoming the pandemic.

“The overall economic fallout of the uncontrolled pandemic—and the new variants emerging due to the ongoing global vaccine shortage—threaten to worsen the humanitarian catastrophe that now confronts us all, especially the most disadvantaged communities in low- and middle-income countries,” the groups wrote Monday.

James Krellenstein, co-founder of PrEP4All, said in a statement that “the Delta variant’s catastrophic spread across the U.S. is teaching us, in real time, the danger of allowing this virus to continue to spread uncontrolled globally.”

“Ensuring that the world has enough vaccines, and the ability to safely and rapidly administer them, will not only save millions of lives across the globe but is also vital to protecting the national security as well,” he added.

In their new letters to congressional leaders and Biden, the groups emphasized that “so long as the pandemic persists globally, we face the high likelihood of new, dangerous variants, any one of which may prove able to evade the protections afforded by existing vaccines.”

“The U.S. is suffering needless, significant economic harm due to pandemic-related reduced exports,” they continued. “And we are losing the opportunity to demonstrate real global leadership by sharing vaccine technology and expanding vaccine production, as developing countries grow increasingly frustrated by severe disparities in vaccine access.”

“Already the world has lost too much time,” the coalition added, “and there is no more time to waste.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
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