As the Biden administration falls woefully behind on its pledges to donate Covid vaccines to the world, on Wednesday, the U.S. House slashed $5 billion for the global pandemic response from an omnibus spending bill. The cut to Covid funds underscores the capriciousness of the U.S. government’s promises, and lends credence to public health activists who argue that countries in the Global South cannot rely on the pledges of wealthy nations, and should be given the information they need to manufacture vaccines themselves.
The $1.5 trillion spending bill that passed the House this week was missing a key area of spending: $15.6 billion for “immediate” Covid response. Of that money taken out of the bill, $5 billion had been requested by the White House for the global Covid response, including “$2.55 billion for vaccinating the world, $1.7 billion for therapeutics and supplies, and $750 million for humanitarian aid,” according to Politico.
The cut came as House members green-lighted $13.6 billion in assistance for Ukraine, including $6.5 billion to the Pentagon to cover the cost of sending weapons, and $6.7 billion for humanitarian and economic aid.
The global Covid funding was removed even as the Biden administration’s international donations lag. A March 8 report from the watchdog organization Public Citizen found that the Biden administration is falling far behind its pledge to donate 1.1 billion doses of Covid vaccines to other nations by the end of September 2022. “By the end of February, the U.S. had shipped 474 million doses, donating doses at a rate of 60 million in recent months,” the report notes. “To meet the 1.1 billion dose target, the U.S. would have to donate 626 million doses in 7 months, or about 90 million doses per month.”
Achieving that goal, the report concludes, would require “increasing the donation rate by 50 percent.” This was already unlikely, but now with the $5 billion cut, the odds of the Biden administration meeting this goal seem even lower. That $5 billion was already well below the $17 billion some lawmakers argued was needed for the global Covid response.
In what may be a tacit acknowledgment of this slow pace, the Public Citizen report notes that the Biden administration recently released a preparedness plan that “touts the 1.2 billion dose target but does not specify any timelines.”
The White House had initially requested $22.5 billion in Covid spending for the omnibus bill, an amount that had already been whittled down to the $15.6 billion figure, due to robust Republican opposition to spending any more money on the pandemic. After some Democrats opposed a plan whereby new pandemic aid would be funded via money previously granted to states in the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill implemented a year ago, the funding was scrapped entirely.
On Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) explained in a letter to her colleagues: “Because of Republican insistence — and the resistance by a number of our Members to making those offsets — we will go back to the Rules Committee to remove Covid funding and accommodate the revised bill. We must proceed with the omnibus today, which includes emergency funding for Ukraine and urgent funding to meet the needs of America’s families.”
Democrats are placing the Covid funds into a package that will be voted on separately in the House. But without being attached to the spending bill, its odds are not good.
Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines Program, says that these cuts are unacceptable. “The cost of Congress’s failure to fund will be measured in lives lost and a longer pandemic,” he tells In These Times. “The White House is out of money to pay for testing, treatment and vaccination campaigns at home and abroad. The World Health Organization does not have the money and certainly developing countries do not have the money. Failing to provide this already too-modest money now is accepting defeat. We can’t afford to do that. Too many people are counting on us.”
The White House says that its vaccine donation program is central to its strategy to combat Covid-19 internationally, proclaiming in June 2021 that “the United States will be the world’s arsenal of vaccines.” But Global South activists have long argued that they cannot rely on the benevolence of wealthy countries.
A proposal from India and South Africa to suspend intellectual property rules so that Global South countries can produce cheaper, generic versions of Covid vaccines has been stalled at the World Trade Organization, as activists express frustration that the Biden administration is failing to robustly support the measure, or push Europe to stop blocking it. The global COVAX donation scheme, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, has fallen far short of its own goals and is broadly considered a failure.
Bill Gates tacitly acknowledged this reality when he said in February, “Sadly the virus itself — particularly the variant called Omicron — is a type of vaccine, creates both B cell and T cell immunity and it’s done a better job of getting out to the world population than we have with vaccines.” He was acknowledging that virus infections were far outpacing vaccinations, so the short-term protection that follows infection, for those who survive, is doing the “job” of vaccines.
Achal Prabhala, coordinator of the AccessIBSA project, a public health effort, tells In These Times, “Omicron has killed over 2,000 people a day in the U.S. alone, so to describe it as a vaccine is a bit sick.”
Global health researchers, meanwhile, have identified 120 facilities in Asia, Latin America and Africa that are strong candidates for producing mRNA vaccines, if Pfizer and Moderna would only give them the vaccine recipes and technical know-how they need. (These companies’ mRNA vaccines are the most effective against the Omicron variant.) “One year after multiple effective vaccines against Covid-19 were brought to market, we have failed to vaccinate the world,” states the brief, which was published in late December by Prabhala, along with Alain Alsalhani of Médecins Sans Frontières.
Even before the $5 billion was cut from the spending bill, activists expressed concern that relying on vaccine donations alone was a bad strategy for addressing global disparities. “For the U.S. government to be holding on to donations as the linchpin of its global vaccination plan at this stage of the pandemic is futile,” Prabhala told In These Times in February. He is among those who have argued that giving Global South countries the vaccine recipes and technical know-how they need to produce vaccines will not only distribute them far more effectively and equitably, but also allow those countries to escape the paternalism of wealthy nations, which insist on donations rather than true knowledge sharing.
That present system has failed to deliver sufficient vaccines to the Global South. Africa is the continent with the lowest vaccination rate, with just 18.4% of its population having received at least one dose. This compares with 78% in the United States and Canada. In some countries, vaccination programs are non-existent. Just 0.1% of Burundi’s population, for example, is fully vaccinated. In Yemen, where the United States is helping Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates wage a seven-year war, that figure is just 1.3%.
“The distribution of vaccines remains scandalously unequal,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement released Wednesday. “Manufacturers are producing 1.5 billion doses per month, but nearly three billion people are still waiting for their first shot.”
“This failure,” he added, “is the direct result of policy and budgetary decisions that prioritize the health of people in wealthy countries over the health of people in poor countries.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.