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Biden to send 500 million doses of Pfizer vaccine to 100 countries over a year

The White House reached the deal just in time for Biden's eight-day European trip, which is his first opportunity to reassert the United States as a world leader and restore relations that were badly frayed by President Donald Trump

By Sharon LaFraniere, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Noah Weiland
Published: Jun 10, 2021

Biden to send 500 million doses of Pfizer vaccine to 100 countries over a yearPresident Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden walk to Marine One as they depart Washington on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. The White House has reached an agreement with Pfizer and BioNTech to provide 500 million doses of coronavirus vaccine to about 100 countries over the next year, a pact that President Biden plans to announce as early as Thursday, according to multiple people familiar with the plan; Image: Tom Brenner/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden, under pressure to aggressively address the global coronavirus vaccine shortage, will announce as early as Thursday that his administration will buy 500 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and donate them among about 100 countries over the next year, according to people familiar with the plan.

The White House reached the deal just in time for Biden’s eight-day European trip, which is his first opportunity to reassert the United States as a world leader and restore relations that were badly frayed by President Donald Trump. 

“We have to end COVID-19, not just at home, which we’re doing, but everywhere,” Biden told U.S. troops after landing at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, England. “There’s no wall high enough to keep us safe from this pandemic or the next biological threat we face, and there will be others. It requires coordinated multilateral action.” 

People familiar with the Pfizer deal said the United States would pay for the doses at a “not for profit” price. The first 200 million doses will be distributed by the end of this year, followed by 300 million by next June, they said. The doses will be distributed through Covax, the international vaccine-sharing initiative. 

Biden is in Europe for a week to attend the NATO and Group of 7 summits and to meet with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Geneva. He is likely to use the trip to call on other nations to step up vaccine distribution.

In a statement on Wednesday, Jeffrey Zients, the White House official in charge of devising a global vaccination strategy, said Biden would “rally the world’s democracies around solving this crisis globally, with America leading the way to create the arsenal of vaccines that will be critical in our global fight against COVID-19.”

The White House is trying to spotlight its success in fighting the pandemic — particularly its vaccination campaign — and use that success as a diplomatic tool, especially as China and Russia seek to do the same. Biden has been insistent that, unlike China and Russia, which have been sharing their vaccines with dozens of countries, the United States will not seek to extract promises from countries receiving American-made vaccines.

The 500 million doses still fall far short of the 11 billion the World Health Organization estimates are needed to vaccinate the world, but significantly exceed what the United States has committed to share so far. Other nations have been pleading with the United States to give up some of its abundant vaccine supplies. Less than 1% of people are fully vaccinated in a number of African countries, compared with 42% in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Advocates for global health welcomed the news, but reiterated their stance that it is not enough for the United States to simply give vaccine away. They say the Biden administration must create the conditions for other countries to manufacture vaccines on their own, including transferring technology to make the doses.

“The world needs urgent new manufacturing to produce billions more doses within a year, not just commitments to buy the planned inadequate supply,” Peter Maybarduk, the director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program, said in a statement. He added, “We have yet to see a plan from the U.S. government or the G-7 of the needed ambition or urgency to make billions more doses and end the pandemic.”

The deal with Pfizer has the potential to open the door to similar agreements with other vaccine manufacturers, including Moderna, whose vaccine was developed with American tax dollars — unlike Pfizer’s. In addition, the Biden administration has brokered a deal in which Merck will help produce Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, and those doses might be available for overseas use.

The United States has already contracted to buy 300 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which requires two shots, for distribution in the United States; the 500 million doses are in addition to that, according to people familiar with the deal.

Neither Pfizer nor administration officials would say what the company is charging the government for the doses. Pfizer is also offering the Biden administration an option to buy another 200 million doses at cost to be donated overseas.

For Pfizer, the decision to sell the Biden administration so much supply without making a profit is a significant step.

Its vaccine accounted for $3.5 billion in revenue in the first three months of this year, nearly a quarter of Pfizer’s total revenue. By some estimates, the firm earned roughly $900 million in pretax profits from the vaccine during the first quarter.

But the company also faced criticism that it was disproportionately aiding wealthy nations, even though Pfizer’s chief executive, Albert Bourla, had promised in January to help ensure that “developing countries have the same access as the rest of the world.”

The 200 million Pfizer doses that the Biden administration plans to donate amount to about 7% of the 3 billion doses that the company is expected to produce this year. Pfizer expects to provide another 800 million doses to lower- or lower-middle-income countries through other agreements with individual countries or COVAX, a spokesperson said.

For Biden, the agreement shows that his administration is willing to dip more deeply into the nation’s treasury to help out poorer countries.

Last week, Biden said the United States would distribute 25 million doses this month to countries in the Caribbean and Latin America; South and Southeast Asia; Africa; and the Palestinian territories, Gaza and the West Bank.

Those doses are the first of 80 million that Biden pledged to send abroad by the end of June; three-quarters of them will be distributed by Covax. The rest will go toward addressing pressing and urgent crises in places like India and the West Bank and Gaza, administration officials have said. Many of the 80 million doses were made by AstraZeneca and are still tied up in a complex review by the Food and Drug Administration.

Biden has also committed to supporting a waiver of an international intellectual property agreement, which would make it harder for companies to refuse to share their technology. But European leaders are blocking the proposed waiver, and pharmaceutical companies are strongly opposed to it. The World Trade Organization’s Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights is meeting this week to consider the waiver.

The president’s promise of vaccines for the global market comes as he prepares to meet on Thursday with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, who has called on leaders to commit to vaccinating everyone in the world by the end of 2022. Biden’s announcement is likely to be welcome news for Johnson, whose critics have questioned where the money will come from to meet his pledge.

“The truth is that world leaders have been kicking the can down the road for months — to the point where they have run out of road,” Edwin Ikhouria, the executive director for Africa at the ONE Campaign, a nonprofit aimed at eradicating global poverty, said in a statement on Wednesday.

About 64% of adults in the United States are at least partly vaccinated, and the president has set a goal of bringing that number up to 70% by July 4. The pace of vaccination has dropped sharply since mid-April, leading the Biden administration to pursue a strategy of greater accessibility and incentives to reach Americans who have not yet gotten shots.

In spite of those efforts, there are unused vaccine doses that could go to waste. Once thawed, doses have a limited shelf life and millions could begin expiring within two weeks, according to federal officials.

Providing equitable access to vaccines has become one of the most intractable challenges to reining in the pandemic. Wealthier nations and private entities have pledged tens of millions of doses and billions of dollars to shore up global supplies, but the disparity in vaccine allocations so far has been stark.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, warned this week that the world was facing a “two-track pandemic,” in which countries where vaccines are scarce will struggle with virus cases even as better-supplied nations return to normal.

Those lower-income countries will be largely dependent on wealthier ones until vaccines can be distributed and produced on a more equitable basis, he said.

©2019 New York Times News Service